Recently a Japanese government panel, headed by former Japanese ambassador to the United States Shunji Yanai, indicated that with some alterations to its current interpretation of the Japanese Constitution, the government ought to be able to slip out of its self-imposed ban on collective defense. Of course, this is nothing new. Japan has been reinterpreting itself away from Article 9 of its constitution for a very long time, often using an almost Orwellian Newspeak to describe its military as “self defense forces” (jietai) or its new flat-topped ships that carry aircraft as “helicopter destroyers.” I’ll leave that twist of the tongue to the military experts, but from the perspective of an anthropologist, if it looks like a duck, it’s a duck—a flat-topped ship designed to transport aircraft is an aircraft carrier.
In any case, the announcement by Yanai’s panel provides a good opportunity to think about the latest unfortunate development in the generally unfortunate history of Article 9. Let’s begin by quoting the article:
Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
The origin of the clause has been debated, although the US certainly had a significant hand in it, as it did in framing the Japanese Constitution in general. And, despite its authorship, the meaning seems pretty clear: Japan will not maintain a military and does not recognize the right of belligerency.
Obviously, the last sentence leaves some opening in relation to defense of the state as opposed to belligerency of the state, and this has allowed the Japanese government to interpret itself so far away from the article over the past sixty years that it really doesn’t carry much meaning in terms of practice. Japan maintains a highly sophisticated and capable military, even if it doesn’t call it a “military” or in Japanese “guntai” per se. Indeed, I’ve often been corrected by friends in Japan when I intentionally call the SDF a guntai as opposed to jietai (self defense force)and am reminded that the US has a guntai, while Japan does not. That brings me back to ducks. You can call the SDF whatever you want, but it is still a military.
The mindset of Japanese related to what they call their military actually turns out to be fairly interesting, because it points to how many Japanese citizens think about their military and, more importantly, the extent to which the Japanese bought into the idea of Article 9 quite wholeheartedly and developed a sense of pride in the idea that Japan was the only country in the world to renounce war. Another question I like to ask friends in Japan is where Japan ranks in terms of defense expenditures in the world. Normally, the response I get is that Japan must rank very low, indeed. When I point out that Japan usually ranks in the top ten and even top five countries in the world, I am greeted with considerable surprise. The problem is that while Japan only spends 1 percent of GDP on the military (as opposed to the US at 4.4 percent) the Japanese GDP is big, thus they have a lot of money to spend—and spend they do.
My point here is not to suggest that Japanese are ignorant of their own country’s position in the world from a military perspective (although this clearly is often the case). Rather, I want to stress that from a cultural perspective, Article 9 has a great deal of meaning for many Japanese, because it forms the basis of a national identity constructed as being distinct from all of the other countries of the world. Japan is the one country that has formally renounced war in its constitution. In fact, I think the cultural power of Article 9 for Japanese has similarities to the Second Amendment to the US Constitution and the notion that gun ownership is a right—it is a deeply ingrained cultural theme tied to the basis of national identity. This is evident in the fact that with each new interpretive step the government has taken in trying to distance itself from Article 9—from participation in UN peacekeeping operations in the 1980s and 1990s to involvement in the Gulf wars and Afghanistan to the current discussions about exercising the right to collective self defense, the Japanese public have been wary, at best, of change. Indeed, a recent survey on the right to collective defense showed almost 54 percent of the population
This is a good thing. In the ongoing desire to become a “normal” nation, with a normal military and self-defense policy, there has been a failure to recognize the cultural power of Article 9. The reality is that the Japanese public bought the idea and that it is meaningful to them. And the world is better off for that fact. Indeed, it might be much better off if, rather than continually trying to weasel out of Article 9, the Japanese government had spent the past sixty years promoting the fact that its position on war and maintenance of a military is very different from many other countries (not all—Costa Rica, for example, has no military) and building foreign policy around providing leadership in encouraging other countries to adopt a similar stance, as opposed to trying to become a “normal” nation.
There is a certain irony in the Japanese government’s long desire to become a normal nation, because the Japanese have a long history of writing about themselves as being different. Most of this literature (known as nihonjinron, theory of Japaneseness) is quite silly, arguing things like how Japanese are different because they have longer intestines than other people or how their climate has given them a unique culture. As a modern, industrial society, Japan operates much like other similar societies and Japanese live much like their counterparts elsewhere. Like all places, there are aspects of Japan that are culturally distinct, but Japan is basically a pretty normal place among industrial nations. One thing that really does distinguish it, however, is Article 9. It places Japan in a different position vis-à-vis ideas about warfare, diplomacy, and the use of the military. It’s a place that much of the Japanese public inhabits and embraces, but where the Japanese government seems to be very uncomfortable.
Obviously, the current situation between Japan and its neighbors is complex and dangerous. I am not advocating that the Japanese government suddenly embrace Article 9 and disarm, although a literal reading of Article 9 doesn’t leave much room for the SDF. Nor am I trying to blame Japan for their position—they have received much pressure from the United States to rearm and their neighbors do present security threats.
Rather, I am suggesting that instead of constantly trying to distance itself from Article 9, the Japanese government give more thought about how to employ its principles strategically as a cornerstone of Japanese foreign policy that puts the country in a position of leadership among nations desiring peace—and the Japanese certainly desire peace. Such a position might help to allay the worries of Japan’s neighbors, and it might also provide a basis for creating a context in which diplomatically Japan truly is unique and uses that quality to provide political leadership in the world.