By the time the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, the once-great nation had seen its empire, which once spanned across half of the Pacific, reduced to a defense of the home islands. Soon after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, Emperor Hirohito gave the order to surrender. A total of between 2.6 and 3.2 million Japanese had died during the war, and the years following the war were filled with reconstruction, Allied occupation, and most insulting to many Japanese, the re-writing of their constitution, to include the dissolution and banning of any military force other than those for self-defense. After years of acceptance of its role on the world stage, could it be that Japan is ready to rebuild its once-mighty military? More importantly, can it?
Since the end of World War II, U.S.-Japanese relations have waxed and waned with the times. Early post-war years were spent shrugging off the shock, destruction, and devastation, but the military occupation brought with it resources that Japan was lacking. This lasted into the 1960s and early ’70s, spurring on a technological leap for Japan. This gave the nation a much-needed economic boost, but also put it at odds with “big brother”—the United States—which was going through a massive economic crisis during the 1970s. But whatever ill feelings may have existed between the countries, two constants have remained: Japan’s post-war constitution, and the United States’ commitment to defend Japan with its military might when needed.
In 2004, in what was Japan’s first foreign deployment of troops since World War II outside of United-Nations endeavors, the Koizumi government dispatched the Japanese Iraq Reconstruction and Support Group, or Jietai Iraku Fukkou Shiengun—a battalion-sized, largely humanitarian contingent of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). Their duties included tasks such as reconstruction, water purification, and re-establishment of public facilities and utilities for the Iraqi people. The contingent was sent to Samawah, in southern Iraq, in early January 2004, and withdrew in late July 2006 after what some say was a combination of pressure from the Japanese people and the kidnapping of Japanese citizens, which resulted in the death of one.
Since then, and in response to the changing global situation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his recent predecessors have faced a quietly growing demand for Japan to step out of the shadow of the United States and develop a homegrown national-security policy. This call for change has included efforts to redraft the current constitution, and in recent years, those pushing to retain the current constitution’s pacifist language have suffered significant political setbacks. The two major pacifist-leaning parties in the government, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, retained only 15 seats in the 480-seat House of Representatives, the two parties were hardly in a position to defend the constitution. Many analysts believe that it is only a matter of time before a serious attempt to redraft the constitution is made, while others believe that other factors would doom the effort to failure.
The security situation in Japan’s immediate territory has caused many in the government to take a hard look at the future. North Korea remains a secluded, yet belligerent threat to the entire region, and its on-again off-again nuclear program, missile tests, and live-fire exchanges with South Korea have made everyone in the region nervous—increasing calls for Japan’s re-militarization. Additionally, recent minor posturing by China to increase its influence in the region, while likely not much more than bravado, has been noticed by Japan. In response to all of this, Prime Minister Abe wants to change Japan’s regional-security role, and his administration has passed a secrecy law, established a National Security Council that it believes will allow it to function better in a crisis, and has drafted a national security strategy. Strategically effective or not, one of the end goals is the hope that it will, at least, revive pride and patriotism among the Japanese people.
So now the question remains, in the event that a move to reinterpret the current constitution and revive a forward-projecting defensive and offensive military are successful, is it possible for Japan to regain the military superpower status that it once enjoyed? Do they even want that? All indications by Prime Minister Abe and his administration point to no—for now. Does he want a revamping of the Japanese military that would bring them out from under the umbrella of U.S. protection and give them equal footing on the world stage? Yes, it does appear so. But that is a far cry from a pre-World War Japan that felt war with the U.S. was a better alternative to being held hostage over natural resources.
Quite a few facts point to Japan’s re-militarization being an unlikely event. First, despite what the current administration wants, the majority of Japanese citizens oppose any reinterpretation of the constitution, believing that the peace that Japan has enjoyed since World War II is a direct result of its pacifist leanings, and that it has allowed the country to overcome hardship and enjoy relative economic gains.
Second, while tensions with China and Korea over island territorial waters in the Pacific region have resulted in chest-beating and shows of force, it is highly unlikely, with the exception of a horrible miscommunication and accidental incident, that it will result in a full-scale war. No Western powers threaten the region, India is emerging, and other middle powers are seeking to establish their own international place on the stage. Basically, right now there is no power vacuum to fill.
Logistically, Japan has a sizable and extremely capable home-island maritime and air self-defense capability complete with a robust anti-submarine and anti-ship surface, submarine, and aircraft fleet. These are hardly capable of projecting an effective forward-offensive projection. Just as crucial, budget limits have been placed on even defensive spending, which makes a re-militarization push unlikely at this time.
Lastly, and probably the most crucial for all involved, the United States has, since 1945, had a huge security and economic stake in Japan. The U.S.-Japanese alliance has historically topped the list of critical partnerships in the region. Historically, the first priority of any Japanese administration has been to protect its alliance with the United States, and in fact, governments have fallen when Japanese politicians and the public feared that the alliance was being mismanaged. In short, while it is true that some would like to see Japan re-emerge as a regional and global power, everything from public opinion to historical ties with the United States makes it unlikely that reality will go along with those ambitions.