Perilous Underside of Japan's Pacifism

Ian Buruma is the author of "Inventing Japan" (Modern Library, 2003).

Of all the things that can go wrong in Northeast Asia, a resurgence of Japanese militarism should be the least of our worries.

Most Japanese still support a constitutional ban on waging war, based on Article 9 of their constitution. When Defense Agency Director Gen. Shigeru Ishiba expressed his desire to get on with a U.S.-Japan missile defense program, there was such a hue and cry in Japan that his own government had to put out disclaimers.

And yet Japanese militarism does worry people. It is as if Japan were seen as a recovering alcoholic for whom the merest whiff of a strong drink would trigger another bender. This is the view, for more or less self-serving reasons, in China, South Korea and other parts of Asia, and also among many Japanese.

Fear of renewed Japanese aggression is usually justified by claims that the Japanese never honestly faced up to their past.

There is some truth to this, but perhaps not for the reasons most people think. I would argue that constitutional pacifism -- a kind of official utopianism -- might be most to blame.

Japan's "peace constitution," drafted by U.S. officials in 1946, came about because the Japanese war was blamed almost entirely on its armed forces and indirectly on the militant traditions of a samurai culture. In Germany, by contrast, the Nazis were held solely responsible for past horrors; the German army largely escaped blame.

Most Japanese, scratching around in their bombed-out cities, were quite happy with the idea of never going to war again. Pacifism was seen as a form of atonement and even gave people a glow of moral satisfaction: the first nation to abolish armed conflict.

But pacifism also created a resentful right wing, still present in mainstream Japanese politics, that felt that Japan had been robbed of its most important sovereign right. The Japanese left, on the other hand, took an almost fetishistic view of official pacifism, as if it were the only way to ward off evil militarism.

One consequence of this pacifism has been Japan's complete dependence on U.S. military protection despite Japan's Self-Defense Forces, a constitutionally dubious institution meant strictly for self-protection.

Right-wing nationalists find this humiliating. And left-wing pacifists resent any attempt by the U.S. to involve Japan in military affairs, as though Americans were trying to force another drink on the old alcoholic. Hence the massive demonstrations during the Vietnam War and, even now, the protests when a Japanese official shows any interest in a common missile defense.

Another consequence has been the endless wrangling over Japan's wartime past. Because constitutional revision is rarely openly discussed -- and never in Parliament -- history instead of contemporary politics has become the focus of debate.

As long as the pacifists use Japan's wartime aggression as an argument against revising the peace constitution, nationalists will continue to deny or downplay such aggression.

And as long as the conservative coalition, called the Liberal Democratic Party, continues to govern, such denials will be heard from Japanese officials.

And as long as this is the case, other Asians will continue to distrust Japan.

Of course, not everything has remained frozen since 1946. Especially since the humiliation of acting as paying bystanders in the Gulf War, more and more Japanese are beginning to question constitutional pacifism.

Since the early 1990s, the Self-Defense Forces have been sent abroad to take a minor part in peacekeeping duties. And the conservative Yomiuri newspaper has tried -- so far, unsuccessfully -- to ignite a national debate.

Yet now that North Korean nuclear threats have made Japanese security a serious issue, most Japanese react as they normally do: fearful of taking a tough stand themselves, and fearful of the U.S. doing it for them.

Because legal restraints make it hard for the Japanese to have a robust military policy, such fears are understandable. But there are at least two good reasons why this should be an opportunity to rethink Japan's constitutional position.

With a revised constitution that would restore Japan's sovereign right to wage war, the Japanese would be in a better position to help keep the peace in Northeast Asia. A less-than-total dependence on the U.S. would lessen the resentment of American hegemony. And solving the sovereignty issue would rob the revanchist right wing of its argument for denying Japan's belligerent past, thus creating space for a healthier historical debate.

The alternatives are for the U.S. to act as the East Asian police force forever and be hated for it more and more, or for the Japanese to rearm -- and possibly go nuclear -- in a fit of panic, without proper debate or democratic checks and balances. Neither option is desirable, whether you are a Chinese, a Korean, a Japanese or, indeed, an American.

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