The Return of The Rising Sun?

Grant Welby, JHU:

Chapter 2, Article 9

“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.”

It was in these solemn terms on May 3, 1947 that the government and people of Japan swore off ever fighting another war. With a country and society in ruins after the unmitigated disaster that was the Second World War, Japan set about laying the foundation of something new, something that would lead them down a fundamentally different path than the militarism and aggression of the previous forty years. Japan rebuilt, rebranding itself as a country focused on economic growth. Although some accommodations were made, including a 1954 measure to build a Self Defense Force (SDS) which today posses one of the strongest navies in Asia, Japan has largely remained demilitarized. Today its military spending as a percentage of GDP is about 1%, not at all helped by the recent economic stagnation.

As tensions between China and Japan have increased, it seems the situation is changing. China has made expansive claims to areas in the South China Sea, creating man-made islands complete with military installations in an attempt to project its military power over the region. As China rises to the level of global power, and is increasingly emboldened, Japan becomes more and more threatened.

It is in this political climate that Japan has passed a resolution allowing its military to take on a less defensive role. In July, the measure passed 261-174 in Japan’s lower house, the House of Representatives, on a party line vote spearheaded by the President’s party, The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner the Komeito. A few days ago, Japan’s upper chamber, the House of Councilors passed the measure in face of unprecedented social upheaval, protests and even violence on the floor of the assembly. This measure is now law, and expands Japan’s justification for use of force from the simple definition of “Self-Defense” to “Collective Self-Defense.” Japanese forces will be allowed to take operate outside of their home turf if three conditions are met:

  1. If Japan or a close ally is attacked, and the result threatens the Japanese people
  2. If there is no other recourse through which to address the threat, and protect the Japanese state and people
  3. Force is kept to a necessary minimum.

On the surface, these measures seem reasonable. Why should Japan, a responsible, modern nation be barred from defending allies if it feels that there may be repercussions for its own people in the future? Ignoring for a moment this may be unconstitutional, the geopolitical ramifications of a militarily active Japan could be harmful for everyone involved.

The bill referenced above is unquestionably directed at the People’s Republic of China, which has been growing in military power in recent years. Proponents of this action, including many in the United States, may claim that an increase in Japanese military strength will prevent China from abusing its new world power status. They claim Japan could check Chinese expansionism, that the threat of Japanese intervention would be enough to temper the flame of Chinese ambition. I find this very unlikely. Before Japan passed this bill, it was the proverbial “second fiddle” to China in the region. After, it is still second fiddle. China’s military spending as a percentage of GDP is more than double Japan’s at 2.1%, a figure especially significant when it takes into account the fact that China’s GDP is twice that of Japan. Not only has China outspent Japan; Japan has a significant disadvantage in experience. Its military has not been in battle since World War II, which raises major concerns about its efficacy. It would need to be significantly more effective to overcome a significantly larger Chinese force, something that could be possible in naval battle, but would be impossible in ground conflict. Furthermore, as it stands this legislation would not be sufficient to check China in the area it is currently most aggressive in: the Spratley Islands. It would be quite difficult to convince anyone, let alone an already skeptical Japanese public, that Chinese aggression in the Spratleys constituted a clear and present danger to the Japanese people. Because this legislation is so impotent, why even bother increasing tensions?

Outside of the inability of this legislation to accomplish its aims, there is significant domestic resistance to the plan. Protests have erupted across Tokyo, with young and old alike resisting the idea of Japan with a strong military. This dissatisfaction is closely linked to the monolithic domination of politics by a single party, Shinzo Abe’s LDP. The only time the LDP has not ruled Japan since 1954 was for a few months in 1993 and a three-year stretch from 2009 to 2012. This last year it has ruled in a coalition government in partnership with Komeito, due in part to low voter turnout of only 52%. This is especially prominent in younger voters, with only 38% of those in their twenties heading to the polls in the last election. This means that those who bear the brunt of this decision, Japanese of military age, have been left out of the process. Consequently, polls indicate that fewer Japanese youth support the measure, a fact made evident by the large number of student protests. Further exacerbating this issue is the small size of Japan’s youngest generation, and it seems the coming generations. Japan’s population has been shrinking for almost a decade, and according to the United Nation’s Population Reference Book, only 13% of the population is below the age of 15, while 26% of the population is over 65. Given this demographic issue, it seems quite unlikely that Japan could afford to mount a significant military effort in coming years, a problem that will only get worse with time.

Japan is neither ready in terms of spirit, military capability, or demographics to be involved in a war. The bill that has just become law is akin to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shaking his fist at an empty room. It will accomplish none of the strategic goals we wish it to, and can only serve to drag Japan into avoidable conflicts. Is this the return of the Rising Sun Empire? I think not. Rather, I believe it is an illusion of a bygone era in which Japan becoming more militaristic would strike fear into the hearts of her enemies, and relief to her allies.


1 Comment

  1. Some goods points are made here, Grant. I was not particularly familiar with the background of this issue, just that the protests were going on.

    Fortunately, while China is getting aggressive in the area, I have a feeling that relatively passive containment, with or without Japan’s strange push towards militarism, from the US and countries in the region will be enough to keep the situation at a simmer.

    I absolutely agree with your point that China, in a hypothetical situation, could defeat Japan by sheer attrition. However, you made the point that Japan’s army and navy would be largely inexperienced, which is true, but it is also important to remember that the last conflict the Chinese army had was their own civil war. Well, technically the Korean War, but they did little other than just march towards the Korean peninsula, and before that, fighting the Japanese, so both sides would suffer from inexperience. However, if they equally cancel, your numbers argument comes out on top. Let’s hope we never have to see that in action.

    Great article, Grant! Glad to see your doing well and writing eloquently like I recall.


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