Giving Japan a military

Air Self-Defense Force F-15 fighters fly over the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Carl Vinson during a Japan-U.S. joint training drill exercise in the Sea of Japan on June 1. | AP


After 70 years, Japan may finally be on the cusp of acquiring its own military. Legally, that is. Last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe indicated his desire to change the Constitution by 2020 to include a clause to give legal standing to the Self-Defense Forces. The revision, while historically controversial domestically, is long overdue.

Written in 1946 by the United States after Japan’s devastating defeat in World War II, the Constitution legally prohibits Japan from waging war and obtaining “war potential.” Article 9 — often referred to as the peace clause — renounces war as a sovereign right and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish this aim, the article specifies that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

In spite of the article, Japan went on to establish the SDF in 1954, building it into one of the most advanced armed forces in the world. Japanese governments were able to do this by arguing that because the SDF’s exclusive purpose is defensive, including a conscious decision not to acquire offense-oriented weaponry, the SDF does not violate the “war potential” prohibition. Domestically then, the SDF is not a military. To everyone outside of Japan, the SDF is a military. As a result, the SDF exists as a military in all but name, and this is exactly why Abe’s proposed constitutional revision makes sense.

Although Japan’s most immediate neighbors continue to view Japan through an antiquated lens from the early 20th century, that perspective could not be further from the truth. As the region’s longest serving democracy, political control of the military in Japan is firmly entrenched. Moreover, the country stands as a postwar exemplar of how a state can manage a “peaceful rise” while helping developing countries, not threatening or intimidating them. With economic growth and democratic maturity came an expectation from international society that Tokyo should contribute more to international affairs. Over the past 25 years, it has searched for ways to fulfill that expectation. Not being able to “bleed” like other militaries, the SDF has been learning how to “sweat” in a growing list of noncombat missions abroad.

The Constitution has never been revised. This irritates more conservative Japanese who feel uncomfortable with the fact that their nation’s basic law was written by foreigners. While a wide range of proposals for revisions have been debated through the years, proposals on Article 9 always cause the most contentious debate. For most supporters of revision, providing a clear legal basis for the SDF remains a core goal. For opponents, it is pride in the pacifist ideals set out in Article 9 and an effort to prevent a return to a revanchist 1930s Japan capable of unleashing its military overseas.

The revision Abe is proposing is referred to as “kaken” — adding something to the Constitution. His proposal is subtle, yet legally important. The more than 220,000 Japanese citizens who voluntarily join the SDF to defend their country from harm and to be deployed overseas on noncombat missions should not have to live in legal limbo. It is time to establish an explicit legal basis — rooted in the Constitution — for the SDF’s existence to end pointless debate on their constitutionality. Abe’s proposal to maintain Article 9 but add a paragraph establishing their constitutionality squares the circle of both sides of the debate.

Full article: Giving Japan a military (The Japan Times)

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