Land of the Rising Gun
A Showdown on Japanese Pacificism

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a long to-do list in his quest to remilitarize Japan. His cabinet voted last July to reinterpret Article 9 of the post-war constitution—the “renunciation of war” section—in a highly contentious move that, Abe claims, theoretically allows Japan to go to war for reasons other than direct self-defense. But there’s a long way from claiming that making war for “collective self-defense” is not technically forbidden by the constitution to actually making it legal.

Now, the (slightly reshuffled) Abe cabinet is taking the plunge. On May 14, it voted in favor of bills that would make Japan’s new stance on defense the law of the land. Reuters reports:

Japan’s cabinet approved on Thursday bills to implement a drastic shift in security policy allowing the military to fight abroad for the first time since World War Two, although the public is divided and wary over the changes.

The planned changes, reflected in new U.S.-Japan defense guidelines unveiled last month, set the stage for Japan to play a bigger role in the bilateral alliance as Tokyo and Washington face challenges such as China’s growing military assertiveness.

As we wrote earlier this week, a lot of things are coming together for Abe’s push to transform Japan: Tokyo is set to start selling its arms on the international market, it’s standing up to China in regional territorial disputes, its annual military spending is set to pass the symbolically important threshold of 1 percent of GDP, it is deepening its ties with the U.S. on defense, and the constitutional reinterpretation has effectively been adopted.

Yet even with Cabinet approval, the new rules aren’t through the gauntlet yet. They still have to pass the Diet, Japan’s parliament. Their chances are good, given that Abe’s coalition holds a majority in the upper house and his party, the LDP, holds a strong majority in the lower house. If these bills do make it through the Diet, Abe will have won, any way you measure it.

But with a confused and divided public, neither passage nor what comes after is certain. And no matter what happens, this debate isn’t about to go away as an issue in Japanese politics; the taboo against militarization runs very deep in Japanese post-War culture, and the authors of the Constitution did not want to make is easy for anyone to do what Abe has been doing.

Perhaps no region will determine the global geopolitical climate of the future as much as Asia. As China tries to realize its ambitions to be a global great power and regional hegemon, this somewhat arcane argument about Japanese constitutional law and parliamentary proceedings is a big part of the battle for the future of power in Asia.

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