The horrific murder of Japanese nationals by Islamic State (IS) terrorists in early February has sparked a pensive debate about whether the pacifist Japanese constitution is an anachronism. Article 9 of the constitution is a product of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. It states that:
… the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
This has been subject to varying interpretations over the years. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is interpreting the clause to allow for the military to exercise a right to “collective self-defence” and assist allies. Ironically, this is partially a response to requests by Japan’s former foe, the United States, for a broader coalition to fight terrorism in the Middle East.
From enemies to allies
The Japan-US relationship is a tale of ambition and agony. Going back to the Meiji restoration in the 19th century, the Japanese aspired to be more like America. At least 30,000 Japanese immigrated to the US during this period.
However, following the rise of colonialism and the tepid response to Japan’s “racial equality” proposal to the League of Nations, the Japanese population became increasingly disillusioned with the West. A strong sense of nationalism took root.
The Japanese saw themselves as protectors of Asia from colonialism. But they became consumed by fear and fury and by a perversion of the ostensibly humanitarian doctrine of Hakkō ichiu (八紘一宇, or “the world under one roof”). Military aggression came to be justified by an imperial saviour complex.
Conflicting narratives have emerged about the extent of Japanese atrocities in Korea and China and about whether the dropping of the atomic bombs was essential to end the conflict. Regardless, the war and the dawn of the nuclear age had a cataclysmic climax in Japan.
What is remarkable today is how fast the Japanese have moved on. They have largely healed relations with Americans, as well as with Chinese and Koreans. Despite sabre-rattling over disputed islands and other shows of public outrage, the Japanese find ways to maintain pragmatic relations with their former adversaries.
Japan has learnt from the perils of the isolation and xenophobia that marked the Sakoku (鎖国) period, coinciding with Western colonial expansion in the 17th and 18th centuries. Perhaps this can be credited to the pragmatic Japanese view of hybridity in culture that emerged after the 1868 Meiji reforms: termed “wakon yousai” (和魂洋才) – “Japanese spirit but Western techniques” – and Wakon-kansai (和魂漢才), meaning “Japanese spirit and Chinese scholarship”. Such eclecticism has served the country well in recovering from the catastrophic surrender in the Second World War.
In the words of historian John Dower, the Japanese “embraced defeat” and gleaned lessons from across the world to transform their nation into an economic powerhouse. Despite economic stagnation in recent years, the economy remains the world’s third-largest. Japan’s manufacturing and services sectors continue to adapt to changing times.
Even epic natural disasters like the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which caused the closure of 52 nuclear power plants and damages exceeding US$300 billion, have been absorbed without economic collapse. Remarkable resilience was evident as back-up energy sources were brought up within days.
A country with such an ability to respond to catastrophes certainly deserves a greater role in international security.
An archipelago of accord
Earlier this year, I visited the island of Okinawa, which exemplifies Japan’s adaptability to changing global conditions. Culturally, the Ryuku island group has been a literal bridge between China and Japan. The islands are also the place where the presence of some 26,000 American troops keeps the military balance of power in the region.
The US forces are stationed there indefinitely, though a 2012 agreement will reduce the number of marines by 9000. Despite rumblings of discontent and even some secessionist cries, the Okinawans have generally found ways to live in concord with the Americans who occupy around 20% of the main island.
In November 2014, a hawkish mayor who opposes the US military presence was elected. Yet even that has not changed the relatively diplomatic cadence that marks Japan’s political culture since the second world war. Rather than issuing bellicose threats, Mayor Takeshi Onaga has stated his desire to “open an office in Washington” to directly raise the concerns of the Okinawese with the US.
Like Hiroshima, Okinawa has a very heavily visited peace memorial. It tries to reconcile the wartime past of Japanese colonial arrogance with a more humble and humanistic future. During his first official visit to Japan in 2009, US President Barack Obama was invited by the former mayor of Hiroshima and former Tufts University professor, Tadatoshi Akiba, to visit the city and make a final gesture of healing.
WikiLeaks cable leaks have revealed recently that Obama was interested in issuing an apology for the nuclear attacks on Japan during a visit to Hiroshima or Okinawa. The erstwhile Japanese vice-foreign minister, Mitoji Yabunaka, asked that no such apology take place:
While a simple visit to Hiroshima without fanfare is sufficiently symbolic to convey the right message, it is premature to include such programme in the US presidential visit.
Although some commentators may read domestic political motives into this stance, it also shows some level of maturity about international relations and reaching accord with former enemies. Since then, the US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy (daughter of JFK), has visited Hiroshima and the new mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have again invited the president to visit. Last year, peace activists suggested both countries offer a mutual apology.
Japan has earned the right to a bigger role
The willingness of Japan to stand by the US-led coalition against IS terrorism has made the matter of an apology perhaps passé. But some form of formal inclusion of Japan in international security matters is long overdue.
The Munich Security Conference, held since 1963 but only recently attended by major world leaders on an annual basis, reflects the salient role of Germany, the former Allied powers’ arch foe, as a global security broker. Similar steps towards the inclusion of Japan are now needed.
As one of the largest contributors of funds to the United Nations, and having paid billions in war reparations, the Japanese have atoned for many of their past sins. They have also shown the ability to learn from past military indiscretions, arguably more so than the United States.
Japan is expected to be elected this year as one of the rotating annual non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. It would be the 11th time since the United Nations was founded, a mark of the respect Japan has earned.
Although the five permanent Security Council members are unlikely to change any time soon, other reforms are in order. Perhaps abolishing their veto power, as former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans recently suggested, would be another way to level the playing field.
Whatever path is chosen, it is essential that Japan has a substantive role in the global security discourse beyond its own regional purview. The Land of the Rising Sun has an important ascendant role to play in world affairs.