Home > Focus on Japan 2005 > Is Japan a Militaristic Society?

Is Japan a Militaristic Society?

July 12th, 2005

I’m not trying to be jingoistic or anti-Japanese here, it’s an honest question.

Ever since I can recall, I have always heard of modern, post-WWII Japan referred to as a peaceful nation. Scarred by the war and in particular by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan truly renounced war–not just because that was imposed on the country–and stood as a symbol of peace in a post-nuclear world.

Not to see how things are going in Japan today, though.

Right-wing newspapers, for many years, have been fighting an aggressive media campaign to convince the people of Japan that it is necessary to amend or rescind Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution–the article that says Japan forever renounces war. Back when I had subscribed to the English-language Daily Yomiuri, I remember frequent front-page headlines along the lines of “Japanese People Support Revision of Article 9.” (Closer examination of the data suggest that a majority of Japanese approve of general revisions to the Constitution, but most oppose revising Article 9.) And a point could be made that Japan has technically, if not officially, crossed those bounds; for example, ever since the 80’s, many have noted that though superficially only a self-defense force, Japan’s navy is one of the largest and most powerful in the world. A few decades ago, the question was about how far above the legal % of GDP Japan spent on the military; today, Japanese “self-defense” troops are station in Iraq. And the pressure to get rid of Article 9 has only increased. Certainly, the present conservative government seems determined to take this path.

Furthermore, the media seems to be taking the same tack. Japan has never been big on self-scrutiny in terms of its wartime wrongs. Few films like “Platoon” get released here. Instead, the tone is more one of “we got framed.” A 1999 film called Pride (which was lavishly budgeted as far as Japanese films go) took a revisionist tack, painting Hideki Tojo as a hero and presenting Japan’s wartime actions as defensive. Current author Harutoshi Fukui, described as a “Japanese Tom Clancy,” is seeing three of his books released as films this year alone, the first of which dealt with a Japanese WWII submarine foiling an American attempt to atom-bomb Tokyo. In short, you see and hear quite a bit in the media about a yearning for militarism, and less and less about peace.

Granted, a good deal of this probably has to do with the identification of the Constitution with a rule of law imposed on Japan by the United States. American bases with tens of thousands of soldiers still dot the Japanese countryside (one of them, in fact, is quite literally in my own backyard, the border fence just a few dozen meters behind my building). Whenever there is any infraction by an American soldier against a Japanese person, it makes national headlines. Japan has seen American culture, politics, and military needs trump its own. A lot of Japanese see Koizumi as Bush’s lapdog and are not pleased with that. Perhaps this was better tolerated when Japan was on an economic high roll, but now Japan is more than a decade into a recession and the compensations may seem less attractive.

The history of relations between the two countries is also felt strongly here, especially one statement made by Douglas MacArthur during the occupation to the effect that Japan was/is a “nation of twelve year olds.” Author Fukui addressed this, saying “We were 12-year-olds just as Americans said, but over the last five years, we think we’ve become at least 14-year-olds. There is a clear difference between 12 years old and 14 years old, when self-consciousness sprouts and the person reaches adolescence. … It’s like a person who says, ‘The world is a scary place, and I should learn to fight like my father.’ But the same person says, ‘I want to get away from my father and go my own way.'”

Then there is the fright factor, just like Americans are reacting to with terrorism. Not only does the specter of al Qaeda hang over Japan, but North Korea is very, very close and is now the country’s number-one boogeyman, firing its missiles over Japanese territory and sending its ships into Japanese waters.

And then there are those who say that Japan is and always has been militaristic, and has lost its way since America imposed a system where money rules. Certainly, with Japan’s famous bushido traditions, there is support for this; however, it again reflects more what the ruling class has imposed, and not perhaps the true voice of the people, now more important in a more democratic society.

However, most of the factors bringing on militarism seem to crowd in from the outside, pushing the people instead of following their desires. Are the Japanese people militaristic, more often than not? A difficult question to answer objectively as an outside observer: an American asking that question to a Japanese citizen is just as likely to receive the answer which the Japanese citizen feels the American wants to hear. Not from deception, of course, but from a desire to avoid possible conflict.

This is something about which I intend to speak with some of my Japanese friends and acquaintances, and would like to hear your opinions as well. Is the recent trend towards militarism a product of the media, a push by right-wingers within and without the government, or is it really the will of the people? I am not asking if Japan is on the path to becoming like it was 60-plus years back, that would be taking things too far too soon. But is Japan on the general track of militaristic independence and possibly military influence, and if so, from where within Japan is that coming?

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  1. YouKnowWho
    July 13th, 2005 at 04:34 | #1

    It seems that Article 9 can be ignored in the name of defense, as noted by Japan’s large Navy (i.e. a9 renouces war, yet not defense).

    Therefore, repealing it may not effect how much $ Japan spends on defense.

    Repealing a9 might be a sloggan used by politicians to appeal to nationalistic emotions, to get elected.

    It seems like all countries have some kind of army/navy for defense.

    Japan’s security burden is shared w/ the usa, and then the question becomes, what percentage should each carry? And what is the total amount?

    Since this involves a deal between 2 parties, I would think it is up to them to come to some sort of an agreement, each year.

  2. BlogD
    July 13th, 2005 at 05:09 | #2

    The amount of money spent on the military is probably not nearly as much an issue as what kind of equipment is bought with that money and what is done with it. But more money could indeed be spent, not only to maintain the current defense forces but also to gear up for offense. As an example, Japan does not have any aircraft carriers, strategically vital for projecting military force. In theory, Japan has no need for this unless it plans to invade someone or use its military strength to influence certain situations–either of which is a bit worrisome.

    Also, it should be noted that a number of countries have little or no military at all. Costa Rica, Iceland and Panama are a few examples. Often these are small countries which rely on larger countries for defense–which, to a certain degree, has described Japan for the past half-century.

    But as I noted, Japan often feels repressed under the umbrella of American defense–and probably not a little left out when it comes to the military-power big-boy’s table. Unfortunately, countries with nationalist tendencies, a sagging economy and a burgeoning military have somewhat of a poor track record in terms of using their militaries responsibly….

  3. Tim Kane
    July 13th, 2005 at 05:19 | #3

    Japan is the oldest non-amended constitution in existence. It is a fundemental rule of thumb that institutions are a function of a society’s belief systems/ideology, and belief systems/ideology is a function of a society’s experiance.

    (which, by the way is why imposing Democracy in Iraq has about a 1 in 10 chance of succeeding).

    This makes Japan’s unamended constitution all the more remarkable, considering it was highly influenced by American lawyer’s on hand during the occupation.

    The legend is nobody quite knows where the non-war provision came from. Drafts were being tossed around between various persons (including McArthur) and somewhere along the line of one of the drafts had the notion of elimination of military/renounciation of warfare in the margins. But how it got there no one has been able to factually establish: McArthur? the new deal lawyer’s who worked on it? the Japanese?

    Regardless as to how it got there, I have my own beliefs as to how it managed to stay there and I suspect its how it got there in the first place.

    Japan’s system of government has always had and benefited from a strong but competant beaurocracy – often thought of as a NeoMandarinate because it is populated by those who tested best as they made their way through the education system. Really a model for all developmental states.

    In the 1930s Japan was the first nation to adopt “Keynseian Economics” (1932) and in conjunction with currency devaluation – Japanese textiles were soon flooding world, especially Asian markets, at the expense, mostly of Britain. The deficit spending went into munitions for the military. When the economy had recovered, deficit spending threatened inflation, the Minister of Finance, duly moved to reduce the deficit spending. The Military objected. The Minister of Finance (whose name escapes me) was assassinated. The result was the deflationary spending continued, inflation was instead combated with price controls and rationing schemes; the other civilian ministers were necessarily intimidated by the Military, the industrial production in Japan DOUBLED during the 1930s and production shifted away from textiles to heavy industry and engineered machinery. The assasination of the MoF meant that there was no check on the military bureaucracies. By 1945 many of the civilian bureaucrats had been chased out of Government altogether or effectively sidelined.

    When America won the war, and McArthur stepped into the role the old civilian bureaucrats who had been marginalized by the military, necessarily looked acceptable and were well placed, politically, and experience wise to step forward. McArthur had no problem bring them forward into helping with the occupation.

    It is my belief that these civilian bureaucrats were the ones that wanted to write the military out of Japan’s constitution – or at the very least were very acceptable to it. They had a nice arrangement with the American military, and in some ways has remained so ever since. My feeling is they either wrote it in themselves, or requested an American write it in on the margin of draft. As the idea got kicked around it was ‘surprisingly’ found acceptable.

    I have to tell you I love this story for many reasons/on many levels. I look at the way the neocons are trying to push everything and everyone to the side these days the way the Japanese bureacracy did and I am comforted by the notion of what comes around, goes around. The bad part of it is the notion that a broken system can’t fix itself. Once the MoF was assisinated, WWII in the far east became almost inevitable. It is a rarecase of supply creating demand – Given all those weapons, and the power it brought, the Japanese military invaded China. Once it invaded China, it needed oil to keep it going – or lose face. That made invading Indonesia a necessity, and that made Pearl Harbor a necessity. The broken system couldn’t fix itself, it took the near total annihalation of Japan to get the system fixed. Is that kind of experience necessary to fix America’s broken political system? Maybe. And that part scares me. Japan’s Manchuria in the 30s is our Iraq today. Our system increasingly becomes more broken, not more fixed, so I find it all so troubling. I hope the pendulum begins to swing back the other way soon, and not by the result of a catastrophy.

  4. mashu
    July 13th, 2005 at 09:30 | #4

    The people I have talked to feel that Japan is not a “REAL” country unless it has a right to keep and maintain a real defense system. You teenager analogy seems apt. Japan wants to be an adult now.

  5. Enumclaw
    July 13th, 2005 at 12:25 | #5

    Interesting post. I joined a Japanese Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai, some months back. Of course, living in Seattle and being a member, I come into contact with Japanese people more frequently now than I did growing up.

    Additionally, reading the writings of Nichiren (the 13th century monk that started this Buddhist practice) and reading frequent speeches by the SGI President, Daisaku Ikeda, I have been exposed much more to Japanese thinking and philosophy.

    In SGI-USA’s monthly publication, they recently ran an article/opinion piece talking about whether or not there could be such a thing as a “just war”. SGI is very peace-oriented, very pacifistic, so to even acknowlege the notion that there might be such a thing as a just war was very controversial.

    I think it illustrates the varying thinking on this issue that there was such a backlash. SGI’s cultural history basically insists that it support peace and absolutely zero offensive forces. Yet some of the writings of Nichiren himself are very… forward in insisting that Japan be able to defend itself against foreign invaders.

    (Of course, Nichiren insisted time and again that the reason Japan had trouble with foreign powers was because the nation did not follow his particular brand of Buddhism, with its insistence that the Lotus Sutra expresses true Buddhism. If they had just followed him, there wouldn’t have been any problem- and this was a common theme after WWII for SGI’s recruiting efforts.)

    Anyway, is Japan militaristic? I don’t know, but I can say that it troubles me to see them thinking of giving up or amending Article 9.

    A more important question, I think, is whether ANY nation should be able to project offensive power beyond its own borders. And if a nation should be able to (I think yes), the much more complicated question is which nations should get this ability and which should not.

    For example, I think it’s safe to say that Iceland could have offensive power and use it wisely/justly. The United States is sometimes borderline but usually okay, and Afghanistan is a definite “no” when asking whether it should be okay to hold offensive power.

    Seattle, WA

  6. July 13th, 2005 at 12:59 | #6

    With regard to the question of whether increasingly high profile military operations are embraced by the bulk of Japanese people, I’d answer yes, cautiously.

    I live in Hiroshima, where for obvious reasons there is an institutionalized reluctance to give support to any action that might be interpreted as undermining article 9, but I still find that when my friends and acquaintances talk about a renewed Japanese military presence in the world an odd sort of light comes into their eyes. “We’re rich,” they seem to be thinking, “so why not become globally relevant, as well?” There is still, I think, a certain level of discomfort in expressing full-throated, uncompromising support of such a development, but one almost senses a wish that such a thing would simply come to pass without their having to be personally culpable for any outcome. Remember, Ishihara Shintaro is very, very popular, often evenwith people who seem fairly liberal.

  7. YouKnowWho
    July 14th, 2005 at 03:17 | #7

    Perhaps the issue w/ a9 is that folks believe this was imposed on them, and they don’t like that.

    Personally, I would not mind if the usa defense budget was decreased 25% to 40%.

  8. Morgan
    July 15th, 2005 at 02:04 | #8

    I recall what I think is a saying within Japanese business circles…”Business is War”. Is this correct? If this is a “common” theme within the Japanese corporate mindset…the idea that if real war is off-limits, then business can substitute for real war….. then, perhaps, a case can be made for the Japanese being a militaristic society. Personally, I think it can be, depending on who’s in charge.

    It’s been many years since I was in Japan so I can’t really saying anything about what Japan is like now (I remember, vaguely, watching Speed Racer in Japanese….that’s how long ago I was there). I hope to see more on this site about your take on it, though.

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