Perspectives on Increased Military Powers in Japan
John de Boer (University of Tokyo)
There is widespread concern in Asia over the recent adoption of military emergency bills, which permit Japan to change the way it responds to military attack. The worry in countries such as China, South Korea and Singapore is that these bills signal a re-emergence of militarism in Japan. On the other hand, in the UK and the US the very notion that a country such as Japan has no defined response to a military attack, especially in the aftermath of S-11, is hard to conceive. The difference in perspective has to do with the discrepancy in the level of sensitivity that exists towards Japan's military rule in Asia prior to and during World War II. A review of this week's media indicates that in general, US and UK based newspapers reflect a lower degree of concern towards an armed Japan than do Asian sources.
The bills submitted to the diet on April 16 seek to implement five wide sweeping changes: (1) give the Prime Minister greater powers to counter attacks; (2) propose the establishment of a special task force to manage crises; (3) make it easier for the defence chief to deploy troops; (4) ease restrictions on the use of fire arms; and (5) allow citizens to be prosecuted for not giving soldiers supplies.
In justification of these bills Prime Minister Koizumi commented that it was "highly unusual for a sovereign state such as Japan to have no war-preparedness legislation in place" and emphasized that the legislation was key if Japan was to be able to defend itself from foreign attack.
Covering this story, the Financial Times and the Associated Press portrayed this legislative move as a natural progression of events in a world which has been on high alert ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11. The Associated Press and the International Herald Tribune also attributed increased regional tension as a reason for these laws. While the Associated Press mentioned a December gun battle between the Japanese Coast Guard and a suspected North Korean spy boat, the International Herald Tribune talked about the growing threat posed by an aggressive China. Although they did indicate that there was widespread opposition to these bills in Asia, their overall message depicted an attitude that this legislation represented the next logical step for an already heavily armed Japan that was living in an increasingly hostile neighborhood.
However, in Asia the reaction was different. While Chinese officials issued a statement requesting that Japan promise not to become a military power, the Singapore Straits Times warned of the revival of militarism in Japan. The subtitle to the Strait Times article on this subject read "Gov't backs expansion of Japan's military roles". When words such as expansion are mentioned in connection with Japan, bitter memories of Japan's brutal military occupation in certain parts of Asia are triggered invoking a strong opposition in response. Considering Asia's sensitivity to Japanese military power, any legislation that seeks to increase military power in Japan is hardly ever understood in the context of Japan's desire to protect itself in an increasingly unstable security environment.
While articles such as the BBC's "Japan to debate military changes" did provide a rather balanced view on the issue, the sensitivity that Asian countries held towards increased military powers in Japan was not adequately reflected in many Western sources. US and UK based newspapers framed these bills in contexts that its readers could identify with. Namely, the increased risk of terrorist attack and the threat of aggressive military action from rogue states such as North Korea. There was also an attempt to associate Japanese moves with widespread concern about the future intentions of China, which more often than not are regarded with mistrust and depicted as aggressive.
In conclusion, there exists an obvious divide in how Japan's decision to debate and possibly approve wider roles for its "military" is interpreted outside of Japan. It is likely no coincidence that this division is aligned with whether or not the historical experience of a people has been as a colonized or colonizing power.
- "Japan to debate military changes", BBC, 17 April 2002
- "Boost for Tokyo's Self-Defence Forces", Singapore Straits Times, 17 April 2002
- "Japanese Cabinet Endorses New Law", The Associated Press, 17 April 2002
- David Ibison, "Japan looks at changing its response to attack", The Financial Times, 17 April 2002
- Robyn Lim, "Nuclear Temptation in Japan", International Herald Tribune 15 April 2002