Japan and Military "Normalization": Why Now?
John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM)
On 22 July, the New York Times began to feature a series of front-page articles on Japan under the theme of "Can Japan Change?" According to the author, Howard W. French, each article will examine various challenges facing Japan. The first attempts to redefine the issue of Japan's defense and the necessary constitutional reform. The series then continues to tackle questions of whether or not Japan can overcome economic stagnation, open up to immigrants and deal with the expanding ranks of professional women. In French's perspective, these are the key issues that Japan will have to tackle in order to prevent decline. In his words, "the country's 13 year economic slump is pushing forward a host of issues: immigration, the role of women, a steep decline in population that are testing whether this tradition-bound society will adapt or face inevitable decline".
In his first article, Howard French takes up the issue of defense and starts out with a bang by stating that Nisohachi Hyodo's proposals for a more militarily assertive Japan, including a four year plan to arm Japan with nuclear weapons, is becoming mainstream. French does admit that not all Japanese support nuclear armament, however, he insists that they recognize the need to discuss a more "assertive Japan". He further indicates that Japan's experience following the 1991 Gulf War proves that Japan can no longer "buy its way out of… unpleasant situation(s)" and argues that the notion of Japan as a "normal" nation unbound by Article 9 of the constitution renouncing war is gaining ground under Prime Minister Koizumi's leadership.
While it remains difficult to accept French's assertion that a nuclear Japan has become acceptable, this New York Times journalist is right in portraying a Japan that is seeking to normalize its military and have it play a greater role domestically, regionally and internationally. The key question, which incidentally does not receive much analysis in French's article, is: why is Japan seeking to "normalize" its military now?
The answer is that global, regional and domestic changes since the 1990's have created the opportunity for successive Prime Ministers and bureaucrats to give greater exposure, mobility and legitimacy to Japan's Self Defense Forces. Environmental variables promoting this policy include an increased demand for peace keeping forces throughout the world, the militarization/nuclearization of North East Asia and South Asia and the heightening sense of economic vulnerability in Japan causing its populace to wake up from its heiwa boke (peaceful stupor).
While the first two factors mentioned above are rather obvious and more talked about, the last (economic vulnerability as a catalyst for arming Japan) often escapes notice. I would argue that in Japan's case it is the increased sense of economic vulnerability and the perception of declining global and regional economic clout that is the main driving force behind the desire to militarize, if we can call it that.
Logically speaking, states tend to arm themselves in light of a perceived threat. Following this logic, the greater the threat the greater the impetus to arm. However, in objective military terms, Japan was no more "secure" or well protected between the 1950's-1980's than it has been since the 1990's. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the threat posed by Russia has diminished in both absolute and relative terms; the opening up of China and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Japan has done much to remove the mistrust and animosity existing between the two; and in terms of North Korea, while its military arsenal is certainly more potent than it has been at any other period, as Professor Ryuichi Ozawa of Shizuoka University told Howard French, it is hard to conceive of a situation where North Korea would attack Japan first. Furthermore, although the US has established plans to pull troops out of South Korea, no such plans have been made public in relation to Japan. Considering the geo-strategic importance of Japan and the fact that Japan pays for most of the US troop deployment in the country, no pull out is likely soon. Even if it were, Japan has developed a potent defense capability that is arguably the best equipped in the region and constitutionally speaking Article 9 has been consistently interpreted by Japanese lawmakers and academics as allowing Japan to exercise the right of self-defense. As such, while East Asian arsenals remain a source of concern to Japan, one is hard pressed to argue that the security threat today is more acute than it has been in the previous fifty years. As such the military security situation cannot justify recent moves to "normalize" the military.
The most acceptable answer to this question is, therefore, better attributed to the greater sense of economic and social vulnerability in Japan. Today, it is well accepted that insecurity is generated by multiple factors. These include military, economic and social variables. While it is difficult to conclude that Japan is more militarily vulnerable today than it was over the past five decades it is clear that Japan's economy has suffered a major blow over the past thirteen years. In the 1980's, Japan was characterized by many in the US (Chalmers Johnson, James Fallows etc.) as the only challenger to US hegemony. However, after having gone through what most call Japan's "lost decade" of the 1990's, Japan is no longer considered a threat. In fact, economic stagnation has led to great social instability in Japan and a loss of international prestige for its politicians and bureaucrats. Thereby, creating a sense of insecurity in Japan.
Japan's response has been a military one. Ozawa Ichiro's notion of Japan becoming a "normal" nation by legitimizing the military and increasing their role came to be widely appreciated only after Japan went through a decade of economic decline. Having failed to put the economy back on track, politicians sought to increase Japan's prestige and visibility in the military realm so as to give Japan more say in international politics and security matters. This has served to generate a sense of preparedness and pride among the general populace towards the Self Defense Forces and has worked in favor of Koizumi's relationship with powerful politicians, most particularly with George W. Bush. It is a case of economic insecurity being diverted by military prowess.
Interestingly enough, among the variables of change highlighted by French, only that of the military does not threaten what he has classified as running counter to "tradition-bound" Japan. Historically, Japan has rejected laissez-faire economics and has preferred to promote a state guided capitalist system. In terms of immigration, many Japanese have lobbied against the idea of cultural and racial diversity and integration in favor of maintaining a "homogeneous" society. The status and roles of women in Japan have been perennially subjected to male domination in every key sector. That Japan has been able to change in the military field as opposed to others is likely explained by the fact that the non-military "traditions" highlighted above are more deeply rooted in Japan's governing societal structure than is Japan's pacifist constitution and its anti-militarism. To answer our main question, Japan has chosen to normalize its military now because doing so boosts public confidence, increases Japan's international power and prestige and does not threaten its "tradition-bound" governing societal structure.
- Howard W. French, "Japan Faces Burden: Its own defense", The New York Times, 22 July 2003