Written by Rikki Kersten.

When Prime Minister Abe’s cabinet decided on July 1st to revise the interpretation of the pacifist clause of Japan’s constitution, commentators in Japan and around the world took notice. Those who argued the move was long overdue called it ‘historic’.[i] Those who found the move disturbing employed the language of alarm, calling it ‘extremely controversial and a massive shift’.[ii]

Certainly the symbolism surrounding this change in official government thinking on pacifism in Japan is striking. Predictably, Abe’s dogged determination to air his personal revisionist views on WWII history and Japanese atrocities has clouded analysis of Japan’s emerging defence posture. But when we interrogate the institutional underpinnings of this political move, are we seeing something more than incremental change? Have the normative goalposts moved, or has Japan strayed so far from passive pacifism with this latest development that the trajectory can only lead to a ‘normal’ defence capability?

Ostensibly the new interpretation of the constitution involves turning away from a doctrine of exclusive self-defence, to a hybrid position of embracing collective self-defence in situations that affect Japan’s own security, ie ‘when an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs and as a result threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger…’.[iii] This reflects the political reality that the LDP needs the support of its pro-pacifist coalition partner, the Komeito, to get ancillary legislative changes through parliament to support any reinterpretation of the constitution.

Indeed, seemingly conscious of massive popular distrust of any tinkering with the pacifist clause Article 9, the drafters of the Cabinet Decision have gone to some lengths to convey a sense of continuity with previous thinking. For instance, they have retained the notion of the obligation to ‘use force to the minimum extent necessary’, and there are also clear statements that civilian control of the military will be preserved. This is an element of pacifist practice that is part of postwar Japan’s democratic DNA.

We can see evidence here too of ongoing incremental institutionalization of a more active and integrated security posture on Japan’s part. The establishment of the National Security Council in November 2013 was followed by the passing of the controversial Act on the Protection of Designated Secrets on 5 December, which was criticized as much for its process (debate stifled, legislation forced through parliament) as for its impact on civil liberties and transparency in Japan. In December, the Abe government also released a revised National Defence Program Guidelines document reflecting Japan’s prioritization of remote island defence, and responding to ‘grey zone’ contingencies. Then with the release of the final report of his expert panel on The Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security in May 2014, Abe seized the opportunity to take the momentous step, at least in symbolic terms, of declaring his intention to revise the interpretation of Japan’s 1947 constitution to allow Japan the right to engage in Collective Self-Defence (CSD).

Yet even here, despite the hue and cry surrounding this move, we can find evidence of a persistent incrementalist dynamic and recourse to a culture of self-constraint in Japan’s security policy. The embrace of CSD is effectively limited in that it is packaged as an evolution or expansion of exclusive self-defence, and is tied to particular situations. The conditions under which Japan could or would consider employing arms in peacekeeping settings have been specified, as have the circumstances under which Japan would support its ally the US with armed force. Most telling of all, despite his evident commitment to normalizing Japan as a security actor, Abe did not opt to go down the route of constitutional revision but instead settled for the expedient path of revision by reinterpretation. He knew he did not have the numbers, or the popular support, to change the letter of the law.

But the signaling of incrementalism conveyed here is challenged in the logic that ties the document together. The Cabinet Decision is based on the idea of ‘seamlessness’, and throughout the document this is made tangible in several ways. Seamlessness commences with the centralization of decision-making on security in the Prime Minister’s office, notably through the National Security Council and the National Security Strategy. This has already been institutionalized in November 2013 through the passing of legislation establishing the new NSC.

It continues with the explicit aim to enhance inter-operability between Japanese para-military (coast guard, police etc) and military entities. This effectively means that the protections offered by the buffer of para-military as opposed to direct military engagement with hostile forces, for instance in the East China Sea, will be weakened. This is significant because while para-military clashes do not invoke alliance obligations, military confrontations potentially do just that.

In addition, the Cabinet Decision determines that coordination between military, para-military, and US forces must be improved and moreover, that enhanced coordination between these entities ought to be extended to include the private sector and civil society in Japan.

Even if this is mainly for the sake of enhanced HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) responses (a powerful lesson learned in the response to 3.11), it represents a watershed development in the post-WWII era in Japan. Until now, the primary lesson drawn by wider civil society of its experience in WWII was the imperative to preserve democratic distance between state and society, and between the state and the military. The test of this democratic distance was value-based in that it rested on preserving the capacity of society to autonomously create norms. This was especially important because under the fascist regime of the 1930s, norms had become the exclusive preserve of an authoritarian, militaristic state.

In his quest to legitimise CSD in postwar Japanese thinking, Prime Minister Abe has deliberately appropriated the emerging norm of ‘proactive pacifism’ to underpin this next step towards normalisation. Proactive pacifism has evolved naturally in the aftermath of Japan’s abortive contribution to the first Gulf War, to such a degree that majority public opinion in Japan today favours Japan’s active participation in peace-building around the world. But to apply this ethos to force projection in conflict settings is a deliberate misrepresentation of popular feeling in contemporary Japan.

It is this non-representative aspect of contemporary Japanese security policy development that is disturbing, rather than the idea of Japan contributing to global and regional security. In lifting the pace of institutionalisation of a ‘normal’ defence posture, Abe is moving too far ahead of his countrymen, and he is manipulating the normative foundations of postwar Japanese political culture in the process. While policy development continues to be delivered in incremental stages, it is producing a normative and operational environment that invokes unsettling shadows from former, darker days.

Japan’s transition to becoming a balanced as opposed to a lopsided power must be a democratic event, reflecting and incorporating normative legitimacy in its very core, if it is to acquire genuine legitimacy at home and abroad.

Rikki Kersten specialises in Japanese political history, security policy and foreign policy. She is Dean of the School of Arts at Murdoch University in Western Australia.


[i] See Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka, ‘Japan takes historic step from post-war pacifism, OKs fighting for allies’, Reuters 1 July 2014.

[ii] See Rajaram Panda, C3S Paper No. 2120, 7 July 2014.

[iii] Cabinet Decision on Seamless Security Legislation to Ensure Japan’s Survival and Protect its People, 1 July 2013.

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