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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:58 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #143: October 22, 2004

Asia asks, where is Japan's "military" Headed?

John de Boer (Japan Fellow, Stanford University; Research Associate, GLOCOM)

According to individuals such as Akio Watanabe, the president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security based in Tokyo, the post-9/11 world has "obliged Japan to play a larger global role, even in the military or paramilitary field." He claims that, ever since the multiple terrorist attacks of 9/11, Japanese themselves have "become more accustomed to the concept of international security and the role of armed forces in it." The message is that Japanese are waking up from the "peaceful slumber" (heiwa boke) and realizing that they are implicated and have a role to play in the "global war on terror."

Indeed, the Japanese government did not hesitate to commit troops to the war effort in Afghanistan. They passed historic contingency laws in record time and are until this day supporting the multinational mission in Afghanistan. Japan has been praised in many quarters for its prompt response, particularly in the United States. However, many in East Asia are concerned about where Japan's increased emphasis on a military contributions is headed. The Koizumi administration's dispatch of Self-Defense Force troops to Iraq, its readiness to upgrade Japan's weapons systems and indications that it will use pre-emptive force if threatened by an attack from North Korea has added to preoccupation toward what is perceived as Japan's remilitarization in places such as China, Singapore and South Korea.

Just last week, an editorial in Singapore's "Business Times" blamed Japan for taking advantage of the global terrorism threat to push for a more assertive military posture. The paper claimed that terrorism has given Japan the perfect cover to move towards being more aggressive. Chinese news agencies also continue to monitor Japan's military moves and both countries are coming to identify each other as military threats.

As negotiations regarding a possible US troop realignment in Japan and East Asia continue, bringing the US command structure from Washington State to Japan, more skepticism regarding Japan's commitment to its pacific constitution and to its leaders limiting Japan's security perimeter to "the Far East" is surfacing. To the Chinese, Singaporeans and the Koreans, this discussion is reminiscent of that introduced by Yamagata Aritomo at the turn of the 20th century when he referred to concepts such as Japan's "line of independence" and "line of interest," which eventually incorporated Korea and Manchuria into Japan's zones of security and facilitated imperialism.

It is uncertain whether Japan is headed in that direction. Certainly, Japan is being pushed from many quarters to play a more active military role in the world. The United States, for instance, has been urging Japan to revise Article 9 of its constitution, which prohibits Japan maintaining a military and using force to resolve international disputes, for decades. Many within Japan's Liberal Democratic Party would also like to see the constitution revised and for Japan to become a "normal" country free to exercise military force if need be. A regional context where North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons and positions missiles towards Japan, no doubt, aids this impetus. Japan's desire to be admitted to the United Nations Security Council as a permanent member may also be cause for an increasing desire among Japanese political leaders to demonstrate a commitment to "global security" initiatives through troop deployment overseas. Finally, Japan's continuing rivalry with China over "leadership" in East Asia is another factor that may be motivating some in Japan's government.

There are many potential explanations for Japan's recent willingness to extend a military presence in the world. What is clear, however, is that the Japanese, at this juncture, do not harbor the intention of colonizing, attacking or coercing their neighbors. However, the Japanese government's repeated failure to atone for the atrocities and injustices it committed in Asia during the first forty-five years of the twentieth century, has led many in the region to suspect that Japan can come to project its military power once again. As scholars such as Marlene J. Mayo have pointed out, the shaping of empire and Japan's expansionism evolved without a master plan. Her work, which looks at the thought of Yamagata Aritomo, Fukuzawa Yukichi and Okakura Tenshi, demonstrates that Japanese evaluations of Asia and Japan's security concerns at the beginning of the 20th century, eventually made any action honorable so long as it could be justified as serving to "protect" Japan and her interests from the "barbarians." In order to defuse present concerns, Japanese leaders must work hard to build up trust in East and Southeast Asia. The first step to doing so would be to fully recognize the atrocities that Japan's imperial government and its supporters committed in the region.

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