Is it time Japan restored its military?

In April,  Motegi Toshimitsu, the Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs, called his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, to express his concern over Chinese military activity.

Of particular concern was a new law which would allow the Chinese coast guard to use weapons. Motegi was also concerned about Chinese Naval aggression in the East and South China seas, including encroachment into Taiwanese and Filipino territory

In response, Wang Yi warned Motegi to stay out of ‘internal’ Chinese affairs. 

This kind of soft-handed diplomacy has been the main weapon in the Japanese arsenal since the end of the Second World War.

Japan has no official military. The Japanese post-war constitution actively forbids the country from maintaining an army, navy or air force. Instead, it has ‘Self-Defense Forces’ which are officially extensions of the national police force.

Opposition to militarism has been one of the cornerstones of post-war Japanese culture, and breaking with its colonial past was vital in thawing relations with its neighbours and the West.

Fuelled by an increasingly belligerent China, both Japan and its Western allies are indicating that a fully restored Japanese military may be required as a counterbalance to Chinese aggression in the Asian neighbourhood.

Japanese militarism

Japanese militarism began with the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and ended with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

During the restoration, Japan underwent enormous social change and industrialisation in order to mirror and compete with the dominant Western powers of the time.

Central to this was the formation of the Imperial Japanese Army. The force was fiercely loyal to the Emperor, and its use in destroying the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate during the 1868 Boshin War meant that the military was immediately tied to the rule of the state.

Guidance from French and British experts meant that the Imperial forces quickly modernised. Japan also quietly went about building one of the most powerful naval forces in the world (the Imperial Japanese Navy).

This was demonstrated in 1905, when Japanese forces crushed those of the Russian Empire. The defeat was a great humiliation to the Russians, and a shock to Western observers who did not believe an Asian force could defeat a modern European military. 

Japanese military confidence grew throughout the early 20th century. In 1910 it annexed Korea, beginning a long and brutal occupation of the peninsula which has deep ramifications within Korean society to this day. 

Japan sided with the Allies during the First World War, and took control of key German possessions throughout the Pacific. 

It was denied longterm control of most of these possessions in the Treaty of Versailles, sparking an oppositional relationship with the Western powers it had admired for so long. 

In 1931 the Japanese invaded Manchuria, with the Western powers responding with only minor diplomatic remonstrations. The occupation was, again, brutal for the local population. 

The worst of this came in 1937, when soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army raped and murdered an estimated 40,000 to 300,000 Chinese troops and civilians in Nanking (modern day Nanjing).

In 1941 Japanese military confidence had swelled to such an extent that its leaders believed they could challenge American supremacy in the Pacific. 

Japanese forces initially performed exceptionally well. The surprise attack at Pearl Harbor was followed by stunning victories over the British and Americans both on land and sea. Japanese forces successfully took Allied strongholds in Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines, stunning Allied commanders. 

By 1942 Japanese forces were in control of territory from Alaska to the doorstep of Australia. 

Its forces were, of course, overstretched, and the Allies soon pushed the Japanese forces back into its own traditional territory, decimating its military strength and capabilities in the meantime. 

The Japanese nation, which was determined to fight to the bitter end in the name of the Emperor, finally surrendered after succumbing to two nuclear bomb strikes. 

The nature of that surrender had important ramifications in dissipating the mystique of Japanese imperialism. Prior to 1945, Emperor Hirohito had god-like status in Japanese culture. He was never seen or heard, and was said to possess supernatural abilities. 

The first time the Japanese nation heard their Emperor speak, it was when he broadcast the nation’s surrender. The Japanese nation heard a frail voice over the radio, speaking a barely intelligible form of traditional Japanese. 

Douglas MacArthur with Emperor Hirohito

As the mystique of the emperor faded, so to did the foundational ideals on which the Japanese military stood.

Around three million Japanese died during the Second World War, and the nation underwent a period of reinvention in the post-war era.

Central to this was the new Japanese Constitution, drafted under the supervision of General Douglas MacArthur, Article 9 of which explicitly forbids the use of force as a means of settling international disputes. 

Awkward with the neighbours

The Japanese post-war recovery was nothing short of remarkable. Within a few decades, its economy was one of the largest in the world, and the success of Japanese popular culture saw the nation’s soft power rise to unrivalled heights.

For Westerners, Japan may be seen as a bastion of peace, stability and Kawaii culture, but for many the Japanese are still seen as the regional aggressors. 

The scars of Japanese colonial past run particularly deep in places like Korea. Japan’s exploitative rule of the country has cultural ramifications on the peninsula to this day.

As recently as 2015, Japan paid $8.3m to a South Korean-administered fund for victims of Japanese activity during the Second World War, in which Korean women were forced to serve as “comfort women” to Japanese troops. 

The scars still run deep, and it doesn’t help that Japan hasn’t fully severed itself from its colonial symbolism. 

The Rising Sun flag in particular remains a point of controversy, with South Korea wanting it banned at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. 

The flag is still widely used in Japanese society, and variations of it adorn the current naval/military defence force. One South Korean official compared the flag to the Swastika. 

If the use of a flag is such a controversial topic in the region, imagine how controversial a fully restored Japanese military would be.

One could foresee Beijing utilising historical grievances to drive a wedge between two nations in Japan and South Korea which the West relies on heavily as a counterbalance in the region.

There have been rumblings of just that happening, however. 

What next?

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe installed a number of reforms which pivoted the Japanese Defense Forces toward becoming a fully fledged military outfit. 

His adminstration passed a law which bypassed Article 9 of the constitution by allowing Japan to use force in defending its allies. Abe’s administration also approved a new muscular defense plan. 

Currently the Defense Forces boast around 247,000 active personnel. Japanese forces participated in the occupation of Iraq, and in 2015 a Credit Suisse survey ranked the Japanese forces as the world’s fourth most powerful, behind only the US, Russia, and China.

The Japanese military does, in practice, exist. It would just be a case of formalising that existence within the constitution. But, as we’ve seen with the controversy around the Rising Sun flag, doing so could open up old wounds in the region.

The US and its allies walk a delicate line in Asia. Japan is key to initiatives such as the Five Eyes, and a strong Japanese military would relieve some responsibility in countering China from an increasingly overburdened Washington.

It is time Japan restored its military, but it is important that it is framed as a new beginning, and not a rebirth of a Japanese militarism which is, for many, synonymous with brutality. 

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