“The Japanese,” wrote Joseph Grew to President Roosevelt’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull in May 1933, are “extremely nationalistic [and] war-loving.” They had already become, at the time, observed Roosevelt’s Ambassador in Tokyo, “a tremendously powerful fighting machine.” Nearly a decade later, three years before the end of World War II, Grew reconfirmed his earlier assessment. “I know Japan,” he said, “I lived there for ten years…. The Japanese will not crack. They will not crack morally or psychologically or economically, even when eventual defeat stares them in the face. They will pull in their belts another notch…and fight to the bitter end.”
Today’s Japan has become a different kettle of fish. The Japanese fought to the bitter end in 1945 and surrendered in August of that year after the United States dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. General Douglas MacArthur’s postwar occupation brought reconstruction and the beginnings of reconciliation with the United States, a new constitution, democracy—and the seeds of modern-day Japanese pacifism. Now, on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Japan’s conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—who is scheduled to meet with President Obama next week and address a joint session of Congress on April 29—is working to alter Japan’s pacifist course and turn the island nation of 127 million into a normal country. It’s time.
I had a chance to get a feel for Abe’s challenge on a recent visit to Tokyo and Okinawa as part of a delegation of policy experts and former senior U.S. officials (the trip was sponsored by the Japanese foreign ministry).
What’s odd so far about the debate Abe is leading is just how far off course opponents as well as allies from his own camp can be.
The current discussion turns largely on Abe’s proposal to amend Japan’s constitution and specifically Article 9, which has the Japanese people “forever” renouncing “the threat or use of force as a means to settle international disputes.” Remarkably, the entire constitution that continues to govern Japanese affairs today was drafted in February 1946 by General MacArthur’s young staff in just a week. General guidance came from the Potsdam Declaration, which declared that the occupation should lead to “a peacefully inclined and responsible government” in Japan. Anchoring pacifism in the constitution made sense for Japan, even if Germany’s postwar constitution did not go so far. (Article 26 of Germany’s “Basic Law” prohibits “Angriffskriege”—wars of aggression.) For their part in World War II, Japanese forces had used chemical and biological weapons, killed exceptionally high numbers of POWs, and committed numerous atrocities. In the Manila massacre of February 1945, at least 100,000 civilians were murdered in the Philippines. In 1937 in Nanking, Japanese forces had looted, raped, and slaughtered as many as 300,000 non-combatants.
Today there are those who still worry about the Japanese, much like British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher worried about the Germans. On the eve of unification in March 1990, Thatcher famously convened at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s weekend house outside London, a seminar with leading scholars and historians to probe the question whether the Germans were still dangerous. So when Abe spoke clearly about Japan’s new strategic vision and intentions at Davos last year, The Atlantic opined that “it wasn’t a assuring moment.” Last year, the Norwegian committee responsible for the Nobel Peace Prize short-listed “Japanese people who conserve Article 9.” The New York Times says it’s fair “to ask Mr. Abe to prove that the shift ‘is not going to change Japan into a country that wages wars.'”
Historical wounds can take a very long time to heal. Nor does the Abe government help its own cause when it re-opens historical questions about “comfort women,” the women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army before and during World War II. Still, the Japan skeptics go too far. Japan has amassed an exemplary record over the past seven decades as a responsible, peaceful, and democratic nation. As George H.W. Bush once said of Germany at the time of unification, “it’s time to let a guy up.” Let’s not mislead ourselves either, though. Abe’s own allies of late have been pushing a line of argument for constitutional amendment—and foreign policy normalization—that is a distraction at best.
This distraction started when, in January of this year, Islamic State terrorists beheaded Japanese journalist Kenji Goto and another hostage, Haruna Yukawa, prompting Abe to call for retribution. “This is 9/11 for Japan,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat with close ties to the Prime Minister. Within days of the executions, there was talk in Tokyo circles close to Abe about the need to free up Japanese forces to protect the country’s citizens abroad. The country’s Left, as well as a public that leans significantly toward pacifism (more than half oppose amending Japan’s constitution), worry about Japan’s becoming entangled in small wars far from home.
There are far more pressing strategic matters.
What I heard recently in Japan was almost identical to what one hears in Eastern Europe these days. In a world where Kantian idealism clashes ever increasingly with Hobbesian brute force—as Leon Aron puts it in the case of Ukraine, a situation where the West wants peace, and Putin wants victory—the West would do well do take seriously the challenges that are the true drivers of Japan’s new realism under Shinzo Abe. As one influential Japanese analyst told me and colleagues: “What Vladimir Putin is doing on the ground, the Chinese are now doing in this part of the world by sea.”
The current matter at hand? China has its eye on the Senkaku, a small chain of eight uninhibited islands (and rocks) in the East China Sea controlled by Japan. The Chinese want the Senkaku because of their proximity to key shipping lanes and to potential oil and gas reserves. Chinese control of the islands would also crucially offer a choke point for U.S. naval forces, should Beijing decide to invade Taiwan. A Chinese government sponsored website, www.diaoyudao.org.cn, asserts Beijing’s claim to the islands by going back to the 15th century (the Chinese call the islands Diaoyu). To make the point another way, China now regularly sends its naval vessels and coast guard ships into Tokyo’s territorial waters. In fact, in November 2013, the Chinese established the “East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone” which happens to include the Senkaku Islands, announcing that henceforth aircraft entering the zone would be required to submit a flight plan and radio frequency information.
Beijing’s brazenness doesn’t end there. On a visit to a Japanese airbase in Okinawa, we watched as a half-dozen F-15s scrambled to intercept an incursion into Japanese airspace. It’s a daily occurrence. Last week, Japan’s air force announced that jet fighter scrambles have now reached Cold War levels. In the 12 months preceding March 31, Japanese fighters scrambled 944 times. That’s the second highest number recorded over a 12-month period since records started being kept in 1958. That’s compared to 500 times three years ago (Most of the activity comes from Chinese aircraft operating in the South and East China Seas, but the Russians are doing their part to surveil and intimidate on Japan’s northern flank as well).
Japan is trying to step up. A year and a half ago, Abe’s administration approved, and not without considerable criticism and controversy at home, a reinterpretation of Article 9 that would permit Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to fight with Tokyo’s allies in case of war. At the beginning of this year, Japan also announced its largest ever defense budget. At 4.98 trillion yen (U.S. $42 billion), the amount is still dwarfed by what China spends (currently north of $112 billion) and Beijing is surpassing the rate of Japanese increases by at least three times officially (and probably five or six times in fact).
When I asked a Japanese Air Force General what China ultimately wants of Japan, he smiled and said, “It’s about you. The larger objective is to push the United States out of the Pacific and the Chinese will take two or three decades to accomplish this if they need to.”
They may not have to wait that long. Our fecklessness in Ukraine and our inability to bring terrorists in the Middle East to heel have almost certainly encouraged China to test limits in East Asia.
Last week, the Philippines and Vietnam expressed alarm about China’s creation of artificial islands for military purpose in the South China Sea. This prompted President Obama to weigh in, saying: “Just because the Philippines or Vietnam are not as large as China doesn’t mean that they can just be elbowed aside.”
Is that so?
Japan’s Prime Minister Abe is likely to share another view of sharp Chinese elbows when he’s in Washington next week. We would do well to listen.