In Retrospect

Unchained standing

From Japan’s demilitarisation post-WW II to its present-day military transformation — the evolution was dictated by US’ interests but, under Shinzo Abe’s leadership, the country managed to emerge out of the American shadow

Unchained standing

Few weeks before his brutal assassination, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned that "Japan will become a laughing stock if it doesn't lift its defence budget in line with NATO countries", reported Nikkei Asia. It is believed that after the ruling coalition won majority of seats in the election for the Upper House of the Diet, held two days after the ex-leader's assassination, a long-time goal of Japan's slain former leader, Shinzo Abe, moved closer to realisation as Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he would push to revise the constitution to cement the military's role. Financial Times has commented that Japan's election has offered Fumio Kishida a 'golden' chance to reform the pacifist constitution.

It is argued that Abe, since 2015, with the help of like-minded parliamentarians, had worked around the constitutional limitations and moved Japan away from any defensive posturing. In fact, the so-called controversial security bills paved the way for Japanese self-defence forces to participate in exercises and operations not just with formal allies like the United States but also with countries like India and Australia within the Quad framework.

Article 9

The Article 9 of the modern constitution remains unchanged from the initial format promulgated by the Diet — the legislative body of Japan — in 1947, and reads as follows:

"Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.'

'In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized."

Jeffrey P Richter (2016) who did an in-depth analysis on Article 9, commented that the language of the article appeared to clearly support the American aims of demilitarizing Japan and preventing its resurgence as a military threat to the world. But shortly after Article 9's promulgation, the United States began to demand the rearmament of Japan in the context of the Korean War and the rise of communism. Bolstered by the constitutional restraint of Article 9, Japan successfully stayed out of the conflict in Korea, but the conflict had lasting effects on the development of the Article and its interpretation. Furthermore, American attempts to persuade Japan to shoulder some of the burden of promoting capitalism in East Asia and amending Article 9 became a recurring theme of the Cold War and beyond.


In the aftermath of WWII, America's goals for the occupation of Japan were twofold: (i) prevent its defeated foe from re-emerging as a threat to global security, and (ii) establish a system of government modelled after the principles of American democracy. General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the US forces in the Pacific during WWII, was installed by President Truman in 1945 to lead Japan in this effort. Rewriting the Japanese constitution became an essential aspect of the occupation, and after a lengthy drafting process, a new constitution was signed into law on May 3, 1947.

From the beginning, the drafting of the new Japanese constitution proved to be a confusing and intricate process, marked with miscommunication, uncertainty, and numerous drafts. MacArthur initially believed "that any amendments to the old constitution should come from the [Japanese] government." Heeding to MacArthur's call, the Japanese Prime Minister's cabinet established the Constitutional Problem Investigation Committee, consisting of 17 members and led by Matsumoto Jōji — an experienced Japanese legal scholar. But the committee members, being firmly rooted in the traditional legal structures of Meiji-Era Japan, were ultimately unable to satisfy America's vision for a more Western-style liberal constitution, and the draft they produced on behalf of the Japanese government was deemed insufficient by MacArthur's team.

In February 1946, MacArthur tasked SCAP (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers) with creating from scratch, in secret, its own draft of a Japanese constitution. In preparation for the drafting, MacArthur delivered to his aide the following three "essential requirements for constitutional reform":

⁕ The Emperor is at the head of state. His succession is dynastic. His duties and powers will be exercised in accordance with the [c]onstitution and responsive to the basic will of the people as provided therein.

⁕ War as a sovereign right of the nation is abolished. Japan renounces it as an instrumentality for settling its disputes and even for preserving its own security. It relies upon the higher ideals which are now stirring the world for its defence and its protection. No Japanese Army, Navy or Air Force will ever be authorized and no rights of belligerency will ever be conferred upon any Japanese force.

⁕ The feudal system of Japan will cease. No rights of peerage except those of the Imperial family will extend beyond the lines of those now existent. No patent of nobility will from this time forth embody within itself any national or civic power of the government.

The second clause clearly provided the framework for what would become Article 9. However, whether the idea of the war-renouncing provision originated with the American occupiers or the Japanese themselves is contested. Regardless of its origins, the language was undeniably conducive to the occupiers' expressed goals of demilitarization and preventing a resurgent threat from Japan.

After drafting these guidelines, MacArthur created his own "constitutional convention," consisting of a team of 24 American officials. He granted them a single week to secretly generate an entirely new national charter for Japan. On the sixth day, the team presented its completed draft to MacArthur, which he approved and submitted to the Japanese government with only one minor change. Notably, MacArthur did not reject the changes to the blueprint for the war-renouncing clause. The draft's existence had been completely unknown to the Japanese, who were still working on their own ideas for constitutional revision. The Japanese government initially resisted the draft, but after MacArthur "suggested" that acceptance of his draft was necessary to ensure the survival of the Imperial institution, the government subsequently announced the new constitution to the people—portraying it as a Japanese product that had been approved by the Americans, when the inverse was in fact much closer to the truth.

Once completed, MacArthur ordered that a copy be sent to Matsumoto's committee, the group of legal scholars organized by the Japanese government in response to MacArthur's original call for constitutional revision. The committee was initially bewildered by Article 9, as a war-renouncing provision was at the time unheard of in a national charter. However, any surprise or hesitation by the Japanese government was not advertised to the people. At the ceremony announcing the new constitution in March 1946, Prime Minister Shidehara wholeheartedly embraced the idea that Japan as a nation would forever renounce war.

Yoshida Doctrine

The emperor ceremoniously submitted the draft of the constitution to the Diet on June 20, 1946 for deliberation and ratification. By the end of the legislative debates, the government's "official interpretation" of Article 9 did not include any exceptions for self-defence. This was not an oversight by Japanese officials; the rationale for rejecting a right to self-defence can be seen in remarks made by Prime Minister Yoshida during the debates:

"I think that the very recognition of such a thing (for a State to wage war in legitimate self-defence) is harmful. . .. It is a notable fact that most modern wars have been waged in the name of the self-defence of States. It seems to me, therefore, that the recognition of the right of self-defence provides the cause for starting a war."

The Diet approved Article 9 and the rest of the new Japanese constitution on October 7, 1946, and it came into effect on May 3, 1947. Yet just three years later, the world's first "pacifist" nation began training a modern standing army. The escalation of the Cold War in the late 1940s changed the direction of the occupation of Japan. America's original goals of demilitarization and democratization gave way to a new objective: ensuring Japan's rapid recovery and transformation into a capable ally in the global fight against communism. This objective came to include Japan's rearmament, and by November 1948, officials in Washington DC were calling for the creation of "a paramilitary force of 1,50,000 inductees to supplement the regular Japanese police," regardless of a direct conflict with the language of Article 9. It seemed the Japanese were receiving another lesson in American democracy—searching for innovative constitutional interpretations in times of emergency.

MacArthur sharply disagreed with Washington over Japan's rearmament, and for years, simply refused the order. However, "the outbreak of the Korean War" in 1950 left him with no choice but to comply. American troops were leaving Japan to join the new conflict in Korea, so MacArthur ordered Japan to create a "National Police Reserve" to fill the vacuum. The name of this new force was a bit of a misnomer—the "police" brandished "M-1 rifles, machine guns, mortars, flamethrowers, artillery, tanks, and American advisers."

In order to avoid conflict with Article 9, the Americans used special non-military vocabulary when referring to this equipment, and Prime Minister Yoshida installed a man with no military background as the force's head in an attempt to assuage his countrymen's fears of rearmament.

However, Yoshida resisted further attempts by the United States to rearm Japan, as he quickly realized the economic benefits to be reaped by removing military spending from the national budget. By not participating in foreign conflicts and relying on the United States for defence, Japan could afford to devote the majority of its resources to reconstructing its economy. Given America's response to the communist invasion of Korea, there was little doubt America would not hesitate to defend Japan if need be.

Prime Minister Yoshida's strategy—the "notion of aggressive economic recovery coupled with passive international strategic disassociation"— is today known as the "Yoshida Doctrine." Article 9 was one of the means used to effectuate this doctrine, as it "gave Yoshida the perfect excuse to shun international military entanglements." Thus, despite the ideals of world peace and human rights that many today associate with Article 9, its initial propagation by the Japanese government cannot be attributed solely to these ideals, but rather instead to Yoshida's radically pragmatic and unprecedented approach to international relations.

Moving out of the US shadow

The latter half of the 1980s saw the US-Japan relation in a cloud of tension, strain and crisis. The alliance was under strain primarily due to reversal of economic strength in the 1980s. Japan was gradually gaining economic momentum on a global scale. Japanese currency gained strength over the dollar. There was a growing consensus within the USA that Japan was trying to pin down the USA, taking advantage of its economic slowdown. On the other hand, there was rising concern in Japan to break free from the culture of over dependence on the USA. Respect for the USA as a global leader was diminishing. Meanwhile, public opinion was building in the nation that it was high time Japan should 'move out of the US shadow' and tackle its problems independently.

With the emerging challenges of the 21st century and transformed alliance dynamics with the USA, Japan grew closer to the European Union. The major Japan -EU partnership was initiated in July 1991 with the signing of the Hague Declaration. This was followed by the approval, in December 2001, of the 'Joint Action Plan for EU-Japan Co-operation'. The partners agreed to make bi-lateral efforts on professional peace and security, bracing stronger trade and economic cooperation. It may be mentioned that though the USA has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, from day one, Japan was a trusted partner of the EU in all climate related-initiatives.

It is argued that Shinzo Abe, described as a pragmatist, a nationalist and an ultra-nationalist, in his nine years at the helm of affairs (in two stints between 2006 and 2007 and 2012 to 2020), wished to see Japan back in the scheme of things. His conservative credentials that helped him to exercise full control over his faction in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are said to have been shaped by his disdain of the manner Japan was treated in the aftermath of the second world war; and in a constitution that was imposed by the United States.

Though Abe's initiatives, in the summer of 2014, for reinterpretation of constitution generated much debate and protest in Japan and abroad, the US government effectively ignored such rhetoric and gave the reinterpretation its blessing, as it has for decades been pushing Japan to repeal Article 9 so that it could assist the United States and its allies during the Cold War. Now that Abe's reinterpretation of Article 9 has been accepted by his successor, the United States seems to have finally achieved this desire of involving Japan in its regional disputes.

Resurgent Japan

On December 24 2021, the cabinet of Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio approved 5.4 trillion-yen (USD 47.2 billion) defence spending in fiscal year 2022, starting in April, amid the increasingly tense security environment in East Asia. The Japanese Ministry of Defence's request to buy new equipment had been brought forward into the supplementary budget for fiscal year 2021, which also hit a record high for an extra budget, thus virtually surpassing the long-standing cap of one per cent of GDP for defence spending.

In a recent policy paper (June 2022), Japan wanted to drastically increase its defence spending "within the next five years". The annual economic policy document for the first time mentioned both a time frame for the expenditure and concern about threats faced by Taiwan. Japan and the United States "emphasized the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and a peaceful resolution of any problem on both sides," the document said in a footnote that was a reference to a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo last month, reports Reuters.

Interestingly, Japan joined the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on January 1, 2022 though India had withdrawn from it at the last moment. RCEP has significant economic importance because it is the first comprehensive economic partnership in East Asia to include the three major countries in the region — China, Japan and South Korea. RCEP could encourage China and Japan to cooperate in their investments and achieve win-win situations in the region, such as in Southeast Asia. Japan's most influential business association, Keidanren (the Japan Business Federation), has sought to expand the operations of Japanese companies in the huge Chinese market, and RCEP is likely to provide more opportunities on this front.

Japan has responded to the rise of China by playing a leadership role in the creation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), of which India is not a member. It is argued that India's withdrawal from RCEP may undermine Japan's efforts to maintain leadership in that trading bloc. In the end, China may become the dominant economic power in the region by establishing trade and investment rules beneficial to it.

In this fast-changing geo strategic equation, till date, India has remained an outlier. Apparently, Japan has moved out of the US shadow. Now the USA has found a trusted junior partner in India. The US-initiated recent alliance among India, Israel, UK and USA (I2U2) is a case in point.

Views expressed are personal

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