Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe was speaking in New York yesterday about his desire for Japan to pursue what he calls “active pacifism”, insisting that he is not the constitution-bashing right-winger he has been portrayed as in the media. He said that the current constitution, which was penned and implemented by the US after the War, limits modern Japan’s ability to respond to security threats.
Although he scrupulously avoided mentioning China by name – he simply referred to it as an “immediate neighbour” ¬– he pointed out that China’s defence spending is at twice the level of Japan’s and is now second only to the US. Japan, he seemed to be saying, is not the country others need to be concerned about. This is the new Japanese diplomacy – more outspoken, at least by Japanese standards, and unapologetic about seeking to play a more active role in global affairs.
Many observers have predicted that with two elections secured and the economy looking brighter, Abe would turn to constitutional matters. The debate centres on Article 9, which has always been interpreted to mean that Japan not only renounces war but also opts out of any involvement in collective military defence on behalf of its allies.
Abe has a challenge on his hands – how to present any changes to Japan’s constitution as anything less than a swerve to the right. What exactly is active pacifism? It sounds like a contradiction in terms. It’s certainly a skilful use of language, keeping the all-important word “pacifism” in the discussion while pushing for a more proactive role for Japan.
Abe doesn’t only have to convince Japan’s neighbours that constitutional change is a necessity, he has to persuade his domestic audience too. Many Japanese, particularly those who were born in the 1940s, are proud of Japan’s pacifist constitution. To the irritation of conservatives, Japan’s most successful filmmaker, the animator Hayao Miyazaki, who was born in 1941, recently reiterated his well-known pacifism, saying that he was appalled by plans to beef up the role of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces.
Abe also has to convince his reticent coalition partners New Komeito – which is backed by Japan’s largest lay-Buddhist association. Its members remain unconvinced about the need for constitutional change. For now it looks like Abe has delayed plans to approve collective self-defence until next Spring, an acknowledgement that the upcoming Diet session is already too busy to allow for the full debate this issue needs.
Yesterday in New York Abe said that a newly active Japan could be a force for good, contributing to global peace and security. It sounds remarkably similar to arguments put forward by Japan’s unnamed “immediate neighbour” to justify the rapid increase in its defence spending.
Quite how an increasingly militarised northeast Asia would contribute to world peace remains to be seen.
Fiona Wilson is Asia bureau chief for Monocle.