Japanese tankers from the 3rd Combat Team of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force assault enemy positions during a live fire training exercise Sept. 22, 2012 at the Yakima Training Center.

Japanese tankers from the 3rd Combat Team of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force assault enemy positions during a live fire training exercise Sept. 22, 2012 at the Yakima Training Center. Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Adam Keith

Japan Just Authorized Its Most Assertive Military Stance in Decades

In a major shift for East Asian security, the Japanese defense forces will play a broader role in the region under a controversial new law.

Seven decades after its surrender ended World War II, Japan took its most significant step away from the pacifist foreign policy that shaped 70 years of its post-war history.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spent considerable effort to push a bill reinterpreting Article 9 of the country’s constitution through the Diet, Japan’s legislature. On Thursday, legislators brawled when opposition politicians tried to physically block a vote on the legislation. It passed Friday after three days of raucous debate in the House of Councillors, the upper house of the Japanese parliament, marking a historic shift in the nation’s approach to international affairs.

Pacifism formed the nucleus of Japan’s foreign policy in the post-war era. The policy is rooted in the horrors of the Pacific War and Japan’s wartime trauma, including the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Article 9 of the post-war constitution, drafted under U.S. occupation in 1947, declares that the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.”

This constitutional language is common among the former Axis powers. Article 11 of the Italian Constitution declares that Italy “rejects war as an instrument of aggression.” Article 26 of Germany’s Basic Law forbids “activities tending and undertaken with the intent to disturb peaceful relations between nations, especially to prepare for aggressive war.”

But Article 9 goes even further. The second clause pledges that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained” by Japan, and that “the right of belligerency will not be recognized.” As the name of Japan’s military suggests, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces exist only to protect the Japanese homeland. JSDF forces participate in UN peacekeeping operations and humanitarian missions, but avoided UN-authorized combat missions in Korea or during the Gulf War. (A noncombat unit took part in the U.S. occupation of Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s fall, to considerable controversy.)

The bill passed on Friday does not change Article 9’s language. That would require a constitutional amendment and two-thirds support in both houses of the Diet, which Abe and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party lack. Instead, it reinterprets it to allow for “collective self-defense.”

Japanese forces will now be able to assist the U.S. and other allies if those allies were attacked, although there would still be limits on the scope and scale of Japanese assistance. The BBC notes, for example, that Japan could now shoot down a North Korean missile fired at the U.S. and provide logistical support to South Korea if Pyongyang invaded, but could not deploy Japanese troops to Korea.

The reorientation of Japanese foreign policy is a major triumph for Abe, a conservative nationalist who has long sought a more assertive posture on the international stage. But his long awaited shift did not come without criticism. Tens of thousands of students protested the bill in Tokyo, and opposition leader Tatsuya Okada warned that the bill and other security-related measures would “leave a big scar on Japanese democratic politics.”

As my colleague David Graham noted when Abe visited the United States in April, U.S. resistance to reinterpreting Article 9 has faded as World War II recedes into history. But in China, a major regional rival of Japan where memories of World War II-era war crimes still loom large in the popular imagination, the response to Abe’s victory was much less enthusiastic.

“We demand that Japan genuinely listen to just appeals from both at home and abroad, learning from historical lessons and adhering to the path of peaceful development,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Friday, according to the Washington Post.