How a pacifist Japan became a Pacific powerhouse

by Barry Cooper

December 19, 2016

Canada and Japan have enjoyed peaceful, cooperative and economically beneficial relations for the past two generations. Canadian and Japanese citizens think well of one another. But Canadian security cooperation with Japan has been limited, confined to agreements facilitating occasional joint naval training exercises and UN peacekeeping.

When discussing Canada’s relationship to Japan, diplomats often stress a common commitment to democracy, a more or less open economy, the rule of law and what are generally referred to as “shared values.”

There is one other commonality the two countries share: We both have one ally that counts — the United States.

However, different geopolitical realities have conditioned the ways each country has responded to their chief alliance partner. Canada exists in a friendly and stable part of the world, whereas Japan is bounded by three confrontational nuclear powers — China, Russia and, soon enough, North Korea. The Japanese relationship with South Korea is still affected by what they both call “historical” factors, including Japan’s colonial rule over the peninsula between 1905 and the end of the Pacific War.

The aftermath of that war remains an important factor in Japanese security policy. After the occupation of Japan, the Americans imposed on their vanquished former adversary a constitution. Article IX of that constitution prohibits Japan from using war as an instrument of state policy. The Japanese were willing to accept shelter under the American security umbrella because — among other reasons — it enabled them to focus on rebuilding their devastated economy.

The rest of the world did not renounce war, of course. After the Japanese “economic miracle” — which was as impressive as the German one — turned Japan into an economic superpower, it began to expand the Japanese Self Defence Forces (JSDF) until today it forms the largest and most competent military in the region (apart from the U.S. military). Initially, this “normalization,” as it is called, required a reinterpretation of the constitution.

Unlike Canada, Japan has had to pull its weight within its alliance with the U.S., especially by expanding its naval capabilities.

Japanese lawyers and judges, who are at least as ingenious as Canadian ones, began construing the plain and unambiguously pacifist meaning of the words of Article IX in terms of a pre-constitutional right of self-defence. Normalization was then expanded beyond UN peacekeeping and peace-building operations to enable JSDF to come to the aid of an allied third country, namely the United States. No one has said that Japan has renounced pacifism or repudiated Article IX — but to a commonsensical outsider it surely looks that way.

The reason is obvious: Unlike Canada, Japan has had to pull its weight within its alliance with the U.S., especially by expanding its naval capabilities. During the Cold War its anti-submarine ships and minesweepers were well within the spirit and letter of self-defence. Today they have already taken delivery of an initial purchase of 42 Lockheed-Martin F-35A Lightning II multirole stealth fighters. They are also developing their own stealth military aircraft, which Japanese journalists have called the “Zero of the present era,” named after the Mitsubishi fighter of World War II.

More significantly, Japan has returned to naval aviation with its Izumo-class “helicopter-destroyers”. At 27,000 tons and with a 248 meter flight deck, they can carry fixed-wing aircraft such as the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey and the F-35B, the short take-off, vertical landing variant of the F-35.

In short, Japan has modified its legal obligations and treaty responsibilities regarding the use of military force. Moreover, it has operationalized those textual changes by acquiring offensive military hardware. To date these changes have been undertaken in the context of greater interoperability with American forces. If the U.S. reduces its presence in the Western Pacific, as President-elect Trump has hinted it might, these offensive capabilities are bound to alarm Japan’s regional competitors as well as its potential enemies.

Obviously, Canada exists in much different geopolitical neighbourhood. Nevertheless, changes in Japanese security policy are a useful reminder that political and economic realities will always penetrate the parchment barriers of mere legal restraints.

Image: AP Photo/Katsumi Kasahara

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