The Fight for Japan’s Pacifist Identity

By Sarah B. Grace

The bloody theatrics of “the biggest rugby upset of all time” by Japan at the World Cup in September paled by comparison with the desperate, equally physical battle fought two days before by the nation’s opposition party politicians. Their goal was to prevent voting on legislation to re-militarize Japan.

Although their efforts were ultimately fruitless, the Sept. 17 televised parliamentary session saw chaotic “scenes reminiscent of a rugby match,” wrote The New York Times, as lawmakers did everything possible to impair voting on the final stages of the bill. The opposition leaders seized the committee chairman’s microphone and bodily piled on top of him. They also punched and kicked the governing party legislators trying to protect the process (and the chairman).

In a country whose society hinges on respect, the spectacle that Japan’s leaders made of themselves could only have been inspired by the prospect of a future in which Japan involves itself in international conflicts. Following its defeat in World War II, Japan rebuilt itself upon a foundation of pacifism, trusting its defense to the United States. This allowed the country to focus on economic renewal and progress with staggering success.

A desire for Japan to become a kind of Asian Switzerland has only recently been on the decline. This pacifist mentality by the Japanese people successfully kept the nation out of the Cold War, and acted as a stabilizing force for much of the second half of the 20th century. Widespread protests outside Parliament and across the nation about the bill to build up the nation’s military speak to the enduring popularity of this mindset. Also, “a majority of Japanese constitutional specialists,” as The New York Times reported, criticized the bill as violating Japan’s postwar Constitution.

Japanese infantry advances in Manchuria during World War II

Japanese infantry advances in Manchuria during World War II

Yet the bill passed, proving that resistance to legislation cannot match the momentum behind it, supplied largely by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s desire for an empowered Japan. Abe intends to free the nation from the entrenched national guilt of World War II, and he wants to respond to recent international events that contributed to this vision. The Islamic State’s beheading of two Japanese citizens last February, and its subsequent promise of more attacks as reprisal for Japanese humanitarian aid to its foes.

Abe is also concerned with the growing threat of Chinese power, and his desire for regional and territorial dominance must have partially inspired his push for “proactive contributions to peace.”   The Japanese Parliament in January 2015 approved a record-setting defense budget equivalent to $41 billion. Abe’s defensive collaborations with the United States also herald Japan’s continuing evolution.

If the events of September are anything to go by, Japan’s fighting spirit is certainly alive and well. It is precisely because of this passion, however, that Abe’s proposed evolution towards a more militarized Japan may not go as smoothly as he hopes.

Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia Commons


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