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The Next Japan
Anti-military demonstration in Tokyo 

The Next Japan

The rise of China, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Prime Minister Abe’s assassination this summer have focused the mind of foreign policy elites in Tokyo.

Linda Sieg

With pomp, ceremony, and protests, Japan’s slain former prime minister, Shinzō Abe, was laid to rest last week. Controversy over his policies, however, is alive and well.

Days after Abe’s shock killing by a lone gunman in July, incumbent Prime Minister Fumio Kishida vowed to tackle Abe’s unfinished agenda, including the revision of the never-amended post-World War II pacifist constitution.

When Kishida spoke, the shock of the fatal shooting in a country where gun violence is rare was palpable. Both admirers and critics of the conservative Abe—Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and one of its most polarizing leaders—expressed horror and dismay.

As reports emerged of ties by Abe and the ruling party to a controversial religious group against which the alleged shooter had a grudge, opposition mounted to Kishida’s plan to honor Abe with a rare state-funded funeral months after a more private ceremony. Critics of this plan argued that it would imply public approval of his policies. The divide unabridged, the September 27 ceremony went ahead amid praise and protests.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Abe, whom I first met during his rocky 2006–2007 premiership plagued by scandals and deadlock, stunned many with his rare comeback in 2012. His return added a reflationary growth recipe to his focus on casting off what he saw as the shackles of postwar pacifism.

Aided by a weak opposition, Abe led his party to victory in multiple elections over nearly eight years before resigning a second time in 2020. This time, his support was eroded by allegations of cronyism and the clumsy handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Abe, nonetheless, remained a towering presence in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

His agenda included strengthening Japan’s military and tightening security ties with America and other friendly countries to counter China’s rise—a stance applauded by Washington and elsewhere in the West. The flip side was his less apologetic stance toward Japan’s wartime past and a push for greater power of the state over individuals. Critics saw the former as nationalist whitewashing and the latter as an assault on Japan’s postwar democracy.

In the months before and after Abe’s death, the shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as worries over a possible attempt by China to take over nearby Taiwan by force, have sparked a fresh challenge to the narrative of Japan’s postwar pacifism. This narrative already has been eroded by years of growing Chinese military assertiveness, a volatile nearby North Korea, and concerns about America’s commitment to the region.

Concerns about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs were fanned this week when Pyongyang test-fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile that flew over Japan for the first time in five years.

Ruling politicians have warned that “what happened to Ukraine could happen in East Asia.” This warning refers to fears that Beijing will attempt a military takeover of nearby Taiwan, triggering a clash with the United States. It would almost certainly drag in Japan, which hosts some 50,000 U.S. troops and relies heavily on the Taiwan Strait for trade.

Despite gains by pro-Constitutional revision parties in an upper house election shortly after Abe’s death, doubts remain whether security concerns will result in amending the U.S.-drafted charter’s pacifist Article 9 anytime soon.

The article is seen by admirers as the basis of peace and democracy. However, many conservatives like Abe—for whom the amendment was a personal as well as political goal—consider it a humiliating symbol of defeat and an obstacle to Japan’s self-defense.

“People are afraid amending Article 9 would remove all vestiges of its idealism,” said Andrew Horvat, a senior fellow at the University of British Columbia’s Center for Japanese Research. “It is part of [Japan’s] national identity.”

Images of death and destruction beamed into Japanese living rooms since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have evoked bitter wartime memories for a dwindling cohort of Japanese elderly survivors. However, many of their children and grandchildren appear to be taking away a different lesson.

“Japan’s post-war pacifism was driven by those who experienced the suffering of World War Two and felt strongly that it should never be repeated,” Akira Kawasaki of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) said in an interview.

“But that happened 80 years ago,” he added. “What Russia is doing now is very similar to what Japan did in the past and it would be good if there were a debate about how not to become like Russia, but what people are thinking about is how not to become like Ukraine.”

Japan’s postwar pacifism has long been a complex animal, focused mainly on preventing another war of aggression and avoiding entanglement in overseas conflicts. The only country to suffer atomic bombings, Japan has relied on the United States’ “nuclear umbrella” while banning the possession, production, or introduction of atomic arms on its own soil.

Under the rubric of an “exclusively defense-oriented” policy, Japanese governments have stretched the limits of Article 9, which, if taken literally, bans the maintenance of a standing military.

Japan’s military—known as the Self-Defense Forces—now ranks fifth globally in terms of firepower. Surveys show that most Japanese citizens believe its existence does not violate the country’s Constitution.

In a landmark shift in 2014, Abe’s cabinet approved a controversial reinterpretation of the Constitution. This move ended a decades-old, self-imposed ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense, or aiding a friendly country under attack, a change long sought by Washington. That change, albeit with some restrictions, was ensconced in legislation the following year despite large public protests.

Japanese defense officials are now working on an update to a long-term National Security Strategy, first issued in 2013. The LDP wants the new document to include the acquisition of “counter-strike capability,” a new name for an old concept of obtaining long-range weapons that can strike enemy bases overseas.

The concept is controversial because it would erode the “exclusively defensive” posture and make possible preemptive strikes, a term officials shun.

“The prime minister says there will be no change to the ‘exclusively defense-oriented’ policy, but the question is whether the definition of that will change,” Katsuya Okada, secretary-general of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan told me, adding the concept could be expanded.

The LDP also wants the new strategy, to be finalized by year-end, to include doubling defense spending from a self-imposed cap of around 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 2 percent within five years, in line with NATO targets. Kishida has promised a “substantial increase,” but how that will be financed given Japan’s huge public debt remains unclear.

Opinion polls show support for acquiring counterstrike capability, with 50 percent in favor in a July survey by the liberal Asahi newspaper. Views on defense spending are more complex, with the same poll showing 46 percent satisfied with current levels versus 34 percent backing an increase.

Not surprisingly, given the diverse domestic views of Abe and his agenda, the impact of his sudden demise is complex.

The immediate effect has been a sharp fall in Kishida’s support rate—to below 30 percent in one recent poll—due largely to his decision to have the government pay in full for Abe’s funeral. The state-funded funeral was attended by hundreds of foreign dignitaries, including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, many of whom praised his globe-trotting diplomacy.

Opposition to the state funeral grew in the months after Abe’s shooting. The suspect in Abe’s shooting is said to have held a grudge against Abe for his ties to the Unification Church, a controversial religious group founded in South Korea in the 1950s. Police said the suspect believed the church had bankrupted his mother by accepting huge donations from her. The church has promised reforms, media sources reported.

Revelations of ties between at least half of the LDP’s parliamentarians and the church compounded criticism of the funeral as pressuring citizens to mourn Abe’s demise despite a lack of consensus over his legacy.

Weak public support could make Kishida wary of tackling such a controversial matter as revising the Constitution, given the low priority most voters place on the issue and the myriad other challenges he faces, including steering the world’s third-largest economy.

Pro-revision parties currently have the two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament needed to approve a Constitutional amendment. However, a majority of voters in a national referendum must also approve any change for it to take effect. Nor are the parties in agreement on how to amend the charter, with the LDP’s junior coalition partner especially wary of touching Article 9.

In theory, Kishida’s LDP need not face a national election until 2025. However, his term as party president expires in 2024, when he could face an internal party rival, if not before. Rejection of a Constitutional amendment in a national referendum would be equivalent to a public vote of no-confidence in the government.

Still, Abe’s removal from the political scene could also give Kishida, who has an image as a relative moderate, a better shot at amending the Constitution.

Fifty-one percent of respondents to the July Asahi survey supported an LDP proposal to write the existence of the Self-Defense Forces into Article 9 under a Kishida government versus 33 percent who were opposed—the exact reverse of the breakdown in 2018 during Abe’s rule.

Many experts say the 2015 security legislation already removed most obstacles to steps Japan might want to take to defend itself and to act with friendly nations, although others argue the gap between the Constitution and reality is unhealthy.

Clearly, an amendment would be historic and hugely symbolic.

“The dominant view remains the pacifist narrative that Japan got destroyed because they went to war and war is a horrible thing,” said Daniel Sneider, a lecturer in East Asia Studies at Stanford University.

“If they move ahead with Constitutional revision, it will force the Japanese to come to grips with how much that narrative remains embedded in Japan’s national identity.”

Linda Sieg has a Ph.D. in Japanese history from Temple University and an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University. She has covered Japanese politics, the
economy, and social issues at Reuters in Tokyo for more than three decades, most recently as chief political correspondent, and is currently freelancing from Tokyo.

Image: Wikimedia Commons