As Japan pushes for constitutional reform, it must face up to its imperial past

When Fumio Kishida was sworn in as Japan’s Prime Minister last October, he would have been well aware of the constitutional headache that awaited him. As the country’s longest-serving foreign minister, he had championed former-PM Shinzo Abe’s long-term goal to reinterpret Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution – a clause which forbids the country from maintaining military forces with “war potential.” Now, as Chinese aggression builds in Taiwan, the South China Sea, and Hong Kong, those terms are facing fresh scrutiny. Indeed, 77% of the candidates elected to Japan’s House of Representatives in October’s election are in favour of constitutional reform. The atmosphere for change may be “ripe,” as Abe recently put it, but, when it comes to its Constitution, Japan struggles with the weight of its own history.

The Japanese Constitution – nicknamed the “Pacifist Constitution” – turns 75 this year. The document, which was drawn up by American officials at the end of the Second World War, serves as the epilogue to a story which began with the Meiji Restoration and culminated with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its terms were geared towards ensuring that Japan did not immediately return to the rampant militarism that had led to war in the Pacific. Today, the post-war fears of Douglas MacArthur and co have subsided. For its detractors, Article 9 is an anachronistic limitation on the country’s ability to maintain a military force capable of standing up to China. Those in favour of the status quo could counter that, to some extent, Japan already has such a force.

Officially known as the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), Japan’s military ranks 5th globally in terms of overall strength. In October, Kishida announced plans to double the defence budget, which already ranks as the world’s 6th largest. In 2015, Abe passed the Peace and Security legislation, an initial reinterpretation of the terms of the Constitution which permits the SDF to mobilise overseas when three conditions are met: when Japan, or an ally, is attacked; when there is no other means available to ensure Japan’s survival; when use of force is restricted to a minimum. Militarily, the distinction between a force committed to self-defence and one with a more offensive role is redundant. Defence is often an inherently front-footed act that takes place far away from a country’s shores. This loose definition has allowed Japan to engage in activities typical of any significant military player. For example, in 2011 the SDF established its first full-scale, long term overseas base in Djibouti. In October 2021, 100,000 personnel, 20,000 vehicles and 120 aircraft participated in the country’s largest military exercise in almost 30 years. In December, Russia remonstrated with a Japanese diplomat over joint Japanese-US naval drills that had been held off the coast of Hokkaido.

An SDF destroyer docked alongside a Dutch frigate at Yokosuka Port

This flurry of activity demonstrates that Article 9 is not a cap on the strength of the SDF. Instead, it serves as a symbolic restraint on Japan’s perceived role in military and geopolitical affairs. During his push for further reform, Abe advocated for an additional clause that would have explicitly referenced the SDF within the Constitution, in order to “create an environment in which SDF personnel can perform their duties with high morale and a sense of mission.” This would have been a symbolic coup for those in favour of clarifying the nation’s strategic orientation, but huge protests in Tokyo highlighted the sensitivity surrounding the issue. More than 100,000 people demonstrated outside the National Diet building, carrying banners bearing slogans including “Protect the Peace Constitution from Madness!” and “Protect the Children, Stop Abe!” While the spectre of Japanese colonial aggression may have receded in the West, the same cannot be said for Japan or the countries it formerly occupied.

In a recent report, Chinese state-controlled paper The Global Times quoted an expert who had argued that if Japan was to revise Article 9, it should “take into full consideration the feelings of neighbouring countries, especially those that have been harmed by it.” Anti-Japanese narratives might be expected within a CCP-mouthpiece, but that isn’t the point. Tokyo’s problem is that it is all too easy for Beijing to play on regional memories of Japanese aggression. This is particularly true of South Korea, a former colonial possession of Japan. Writing in the wake of Abe’s 2015 reforms, Sheen Seong-ho, professor of international security and East Asia at Seoul National University, commented that: “The potential deterioration in Japan’s relationship with China and South Korea that could result from the revision cannot be ignored. Angry protests on the streets of Beijing and Seoul are highly possible.” History’s ability to sour modern relations between the two countries was demonstrated in 2019, when Seoul dramatically terminated a bilateral intelligence sharing treaty over Japan’s refusal to compensate Korean victims of Japanese war crimes. The dispute followed a 2018 Supreme Court decision in Seoul which upheld claims against Japanese corporations that had forced Koreans into labour. In a clear demonstration of Japan’s stance on the issue, Abe responded by removing South Korea from a list of preferential trading partners and placing restrictions on its exports. In a pointed reference to the difficult history shared by the two countries, President Moon Jae-in then told his cabinet that South Korea “won’t be defeated by Japan again.” A subsequent South Korean consumer boycott severely hit Japanese exports into the country.

Much of this ongoing animosity hinges on the interpretation of the 1965 Normalization Treaty. The treaty was implemented by military dictator Park Chung-hee and restored diplomatic relations between the two countries. South Korea received $800m in compensation for the Japanese occupation in a US-brokered deal. A 2015 settlement saw Japan pay a further $8.3m to a South Korean-administered fund for victims of Japanese brutality, including the trafficking of Korean women – euphemistically referred to as “comfort women” – into sexual slavery. Japan maintains that these settlements have resolved any historical debt “irreversibly,” but surviving victims counter that they were agreed without their knowledge or consent. Meanwhile, the South Korean Supreme Court maintains that the 1965 Treaty does not override the compensation rights of any Koreans forced into labour by the Japanese – a stance that has been flatly rejected by Tokyo. Elsewhere, tensions simmer over the SDF’s continued use of the Rising Sun Flag.

To this end, perhaps Japan could take a leaf from the book of an old Axis ally. Unlike Japan, Germany has largely been able to move out of Hitler’s shadow. Germany today is more closely associated with the efficiency of its people and its central role in the European Union than it is with its wartime history. The same is true for the German military forces, the Bundeswehr. This fact was best demonstrated in October 2021, when aircraft of the German Luftwaffe performed a flyby over the Knesset, the parliament building of Israel – a country born directly out of the horrors perpetuated by the German wartime regime. According to a 2018 poll, a majority of Polish citizens have a “positive” view of the German military. In 2016, elements of the German and Dutch Armies combined to form the 414 Tank Battalion, a unit that has since taken part in exercises in Poland.

Israeli and German fighter jets over Jerusalem

So, how has Germany managed to reinvent itself so successfully? According to Lily Gardner Feldman, author of Germany’s Foreign Policy of Reconciliation: From Enmity to Amity, the West German government viewed reconciliation with its former enemies as the key to re-entering the community of prosperous nations. In 1952, West Germany and Israel signed a reparations agreement in Luxembourg. By the end of 2008, Germany had paid the equivalent of €66bn to survivors of the holocaust. Those payments continue to this day. At the same time, West Germany made similar rapprochements with France and Poland. In 1963, French President Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer signed the Elysée Treaty with the aim of ending centuries of rivalry between the two countries. In 1970, Chancellor Willy Brandt signed the Treaty of Warsaw, which committed Germany to non-violence with Poland and confirmed its acceptance of the post-war German-Polish border settlement. As Feldman argues: “the cornerstone, perhaps the very foundation, of German foreign policy after World War II became, progressively, reconciliation.”

Japan, in comparison, has done little in terms of reconciliation. The Treaty of Basic Relations and sporadic apologies out of Tokyo “stand as islands in a sea of denial, not as markers in a consistent effort to face the past,” according to Feldman. None of this was followed by robust, concrete action. Where Germany has used any remnants of the legacy of Nazism to highlight the regime’s atrocities, both South Korea and China routinely complain when Japanese officials visit Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which has ties to Japanese war criminals and colonial aggression. The South Korean government published a statement expressing “deep concern and regret” when 100 Japanese lawmakers, including members of Kishida’s cabinet, visited the shrine in December 2021. “We are again strongly pointing out that the international community could trust Japan when it faces up to history correctly and demonstrates its humble reflection of the past and sincere remorse through actions,” the statement continued.

Angela Merkel highlighted the different paths taken by either country since the end of the war during a visit to Japan in 2015. Over two days, the Chancellor referenced the post-war rehabilitation of Germany’s reputation no less than four times. At an event in Tokyo, she commented that: “We Germans will never forget the hand of reconciliation that was extended to us after all the suffering that our country had brought to Europe and the world.” In a pointed statement, she encouraged Tokyo to “go ahead with reconciliation” with South Korea over the ongoing “comfort women” dispute. Japan has done little to assuage Korean concerns in the intervening seven years. That said, addressing historical sensitivities is a delicate act. Indeed, the reparations issue was a hot debate within early Israeli politics, with many of its leading figures arguing that the country should not accept German “blood money”. But the relative amity shared between Germany and Israel today would suggest that, if Japan played its cards right, short term controversy would soon give way to long term gain. Perhaps if Abe had taken Merkel’s advice, Tokyo could have already made some progress towards ensuring that Seoul does not view remilitarisation through an imperial lens. Until then, discussions of constitutional reform will inevitably cause tensions to flare; a weakness in the US-led web of alliances that China would gladly exploit.

The controversial Rising Sun Flag on display at a 2018 SDF parade.

Then there is China itself. Despite the recent strengthening of military ties between Japan and its Western allies, Tokyo has yet to fully close its door to Beijing. In a January speech, newly appointed foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi acknowledged the threat posed by China but articulated his hopes to establish a “constructive and stable Japan-China relationship.” Hayashi is the former chairman of the Japan-China Friendship Parliamentarians’ Union, a cross-party group that promotes good relations with Beijing. His comments followed the announcement of plans to establish a military hotline between the two countries.

For now, at least, it appears that Japan is intent on keeping its diplomatic options open. This may partly be fuelled by a lingering commitment to pacifism, but this position is becoming increasingly untenable as Chinese belligerence grows. The immediate threat that this poses to Japan was best demonstrated in April 2021, when China passed a new coast guard law to authorise the use of lethal force by its maritime law-enforcement fleets on foreign ships operating in “Chinese” waters – including disputed areas of the South and East China Seas. China benefits from Japan’s vague strategic position when flexing its regional muscles. In 2014, current White House “Asia Tsar” Kurt Campbell argued that the Chinese characterization of Japan’s constitutional reinterpretation and military modernization as “reactionary or militaristic” is a specific act of propaganda designed to inhibit the SDF’s ability to play a significant role in the region. As regional tensions grow, it is becoming increasingly important that Japan clarifies its strategic position. This will hinge upon Japan regaining control of the narrative surrounding its military, something that Germany has been able to achieve through reconciliation. 

The vagaries surrounding the role of Japan’s forces and the country’s overarching commitment to pacifism only serve to muddy the situation at a time when clarity is needed in the face of Chinese aggression. It is for this reason that Abe and his successors in the LDP continue to push for constitutional recognition of the SDF. But sensitivities, both within and outside of Japan, mean that any significant change to the cherished Peace Constitution will inevitably require addressing the legacy of the Japanese Empire. The successful revival of Germany’s reputation in the post-war era, and the positive shift in the perception of its military, suggests that this is possible. To achieve this, Kishida and his successors would have to diverge significantly from the sclerotic approach that Tokyo has taken toward reconciliation since the end of the Second World War. Until then, the debate over constitutional reform will remain entangled with regional memories of Japanese aggression.

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