National Security & Defense

Calls to Arms, Part II

Japanese airborne troops in Asaka, October 2013 (Reuters photo: Issei Kato)
Germany, Japan, and their militaries — after 70 years, time to get going?

Editor’s Note: In our December 31 issue, we published a piece by Jay Nordlinger called “Calls to Arms: The pregnant question of Germany, Japan, and their militaries.” This week, in a two-part series, Mr. Nordlinger has expanded that piece. Yesterday’s installment was about Germany — here. Today’s is about Japan.

Earlier, I quoted Willy Brandt, in his Nobel lecture (1971). I will now quote another politician, this one Japanese, in his Nobel lecture of 1974.

That politician is Eisaku Sato, who had been prime minister from 1964 to 1972. He shared the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize with an Irish politician and international-organization man, Seán MacBride.

Leaving the Irish co-laureate aside, why did Sato win? In brief, the Norwegian committee was honoring the peaceful nature of Japan. Its eschewal and abhorrence of nuclear weapons. Its eschewal and abhorrence of nationalism. Its “good neighbor” policies. And so on.

In his Nobel lecture, Sato pointed out that “the philosophy of the Kellogg-Briand Pact” is enshrined in the Japanese constitution.

A refresher on the Kellogg-Briand Pact: This is the treaty of 1928 that “outlawed war,” as the saying went. It outlawed war as a means of settling disputes.

I am using the past tense. But, believe it or not, the Kellogg-Briand Pact is still in effect. Technically speaking, it is operative.

Japan was an original signatory, back in 1928. It was also the first country to break the pact, in 1931. It would not be the last, needless to say.

As for the Japanese constitution, it took effect in 1947, imposed on the country by the victorious Americans. The most famous part of the constitution is Article 9. Sato quoted from it in his lecture, and so will I:

“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or the use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”

Forever. That is a long time.

Article 9 goes on to say that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”


A veteran scholar of Japan explains to me that pacifism is akin to religious belief for many Japanese. They also believe that pacifism, in the Japanese style, is their country’s contribution to world civilization. The “peace constitution” lies at the heart of their belief-system. It is a first step, they believe, to universal peace, Japan guiding the way.

And if the constitution is ditched or altered, Japan’s gift — its modern reason for being — is wrecked.

For all these years, the United States has been the guarantor of Japan’s defense. Japan is what President Obama calls a “free-rider.” But isn’t that what we Americans demanded? The question of Japan is trickier in this respect, and others, than that of Germany.

There are some Japanese who hold that U.S. bases serve as a check on Japanese militarism — a passion that may lurk beneath the surface of peaceful Japanese life, subject to bursting out if it is not contained.

Japan does not lack money. It is the third-largest economy in the world. (The press secretary of Japan’s foreign ministry, Yasuhisa Kawamura, reminds me of this fact.) Germany is fourth, incidentally. But the Kellogg-Briand philosophy has held sway in Japan. Another way to put that is, the peace constitution has remained intact.

This is not to say that Japan has not participated in American-led wars. They have done so by donating money: many billions of dollars. This was certainly true in the Gulf War, a war that caused much debate and anguish in Japan. Was Japan doing its part? What was its part? Was a financial contribution a violation of the constitution? Of its spirit, if not its letter?

To the Iraq War, Japan actually contributed troops, though not in combat roles.

For the last 25 years, Japanese have served as blue helmets. That is, they have taken part in the peacekeeping operations of the United Nations. The first was in 1992, in Cambodia. Since 2012, the Japanese have been in South Sudan, the world’s newest nation — but not so new that it isn’t torn by civil war. Indeed, South Sudan is a hell on earth.

Among the victims have been U.N. peacekeepers and foreign-aid workers. They have been raped and murdered. In this context, recent Japanese legislation is interesting.

The story is rather complicated, but I will tell it briefly. In 2014, the government approved a “reinterpretation” of the constitution. A “reinterpretation” is easier than outright — than proper — amendment. The reinterpretation permitted Japanese forces to come to the aid of allies under attack.

In 2015, this reinterpretation was made law, in a couple of wild sessions. The floor of the Japanese parliament — the National Diet — was the scene of mêlées. Legislators confronted one another physically over this departure from tradition.

At any rate, the government’s view prevailed.

And Japan has now sent troops back to South Sudan under new rules. The troops may defend not only themselves but also fellow peacekeepers, and foreign-aid workers, and civilians. This adds a “new dimension” to the Japanese mission, as Yasuhisa Kawamura says.

What the Japanese may not do is engage an army — an official army. And herein lies a problem, for South Sudanese troops have attacked international personnel (among others). What are the Japanese troops supposed to do in such an eventuality?

To Americans and others, the question of etiquette in South Sudan may seem silly. How many blue helmets can dance on the head of a pin? But in Japan, for understandable reasons — understandable historical, constitutional, political, and psychological reasons — the question is hot.

Not so hot, to be sure, as other questions: such as, What to do about China? And North Korea? Kim Jong-un has been shaking his nuclear rattle.

Then there is this question (intimately related): How much longer can Japan depend on its American patron?

Campaigning in March, Donald Trump said, “Japan is better if it protects itself against this maniac of North Korea.” Campaigning in August, he said, “Do you know that if Japan is attacked, we have to get involved probably with World War III, right? If we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to do nothing. They can sit home and watch Sony television. Right? It’s true.”

To say it again, the Americans — we Americans — imposed that “peace constitution” on Japan. If the Japanese aren’t pulling their oar, it’s because we forbade them an oar (rightly, I think). Constitutional reform is a momentous issue in Japan.

Let me recommend a series of blogposts either by or under the aegis of Sheila A. Smith, a leading scholar of Japan. She works at the Council on Foreign Relations. That series is here.

After Trump was elected president, the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was very eager to meet with him. In fact, Abe became the first foreign leader to meet with the president-elect. Afterward, he said that the two had had a “very candid discussion.”

In Japan, there is a big word, and that word is “normal” (along with “normality,” etc.). It is a big word in Israel and other places too. Should Japan be “normal” again? For example, is it time to assume responsibility for one’s own defense?

Germany is well on its way to normality. Japan is less far along. Prime Minister Abe is only the most prominent of the Japanese who call on their country to be normal.

For these 70 years, Germany and Japan have been on the sidelines, militarily. What did the Lithuanian president, Grybauskaite, say? We have quoted it before: “A lot of time has passed.” A lot of time has passed between V-E Day, and V-J Day, and today. Historically, it has been the blink of an eye. But to many people, here and now, it’s feeling long enough.

A word from the National Review Store: To get Jay Nordlinger’s new collection, Digging In, go here.

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