Is Japan really shifting further away from pacifism?
A few days ago, the New York Times printed an article by Martin Fackler that claimed that the country was “shifting further away from pacifism.” But is that really the case? Several online commentaries have taken issue with Fackler’s narrative.
The most interesting response is from Corey Wallace of Japan Security Watch. He notes that the article contains some “memes” that commonly appear in international media reports about Japan’s security policies:
As with many media commentaries, the problem often resides in the framing rather than the information itself. First, any reference to Japan “moving away from pacifism” will be an inherently loaded characterization, and while not all who do refer to it buy into the idea that this is necessarily a bad thing, it will unfortunately reaffirm the knee-jerk narratives around Japanese remilitarization which prey on pre-existing stereotypes regarding Japan.
First, the concept/frame of “moving away from pacifism” is kind of a meaningless distinction to make in the first place. Japan has never been formally “pacifist” and has never been as purely idealistic (or naive, if you take your cue from DC) as many believed. In this sense, the “moving away from pacifism” is a double fiction. Defensive-orientated defense (senshu bouei 専守防衛) and certain antimilitarist norms, established in the public imagination and institutionalized politically much later than 1947, are a better starting point for understanding Japan’s initial “non-offensive” security doctrine. I wonder if it would be so hard for commentators to use language such as “Japan’s security doctrine continues to incrementally evolve in line with regional developments and Japan’s changing international identity after periods of societal debate.” Of course, that would be boring. But appropriate.
Second, the specific claims about Japan’s security evolution, while not incorrect per se, are probably not quite as meaningful as they might seem at first glance, at least as conceptualized within the frame of “weakening pacifism.”
Another noteworthy response to Fackler’s article comes from Thomas U. Berger of Boston University:
“…If anything, it has been startling how slow Japan has been to respond to the changing threat environment, although that can be attributed to the fact that Japan still feels that it has a certain margin of safety to work with with regard to the Chinese and North Korean threats.
The analytical problem comes from the use of the term “pacifism.” While there is indeed a pacifist streak in the way Japan thinks about defense and national security, it has always been a minority view. Even in the 50s and 60s there never was a consensus in favor of unarmed neutrality, and there is virtually no support for it today.
A more accurate term for Japanese attitudes is what I have called anti-militarism. The Japanese are extremely skeptical about the use of forces because of their historical experiences of the 1930s and 40s. These experience have been institutionalized in various ways in Japan’s legal and bureaucratic systems and they are reinforced supported by popular attitudes that are periodically reinvigorated by books, movies as well as the way Japanese people – both elites and on a popular level – talk about the past.
This does not mean, however, that the Japanese have completely foresworn defending themselves. There has always been a readiness to defend Japan and its territory….”
In another NBR Forum post, Todd Kreider examines the statements Fackler writes about Japan’s public opinion and defense spending. As others have observed, defense spending increases are tiny and public opinion has barely changed over the last decade. Buy why let that get in the way of a good story?