On the 15th of August, 1945, all of Japan was tuned into their radios. It was a remarkable moment – Emperor Hirohito, venerated by millions as the living embodiment of God, was to address his subjects at noon. It was the first time that a ruler from the oldest hereditary dynasty in the world was speaking directly to the common men and women. However, the message itself was not a happy one. The broadcast, which came to be known as Gyokuon-hoso (“Jewel Voice Broadcast”) announced the unconditional surrender of Japanese forces to the Allies, and the acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration. World War II was over, and Japan lay in ruins, defeated and devastated, having witnessed mankind’s most terrifying new weapon: the atomic bomb.
This marked a turning point in Japan’s history. The island nation, which had developed over the past two hundred years into a formidable, military-industrial empire, with a society focused around decidedly militaristic values and notions of racial superiority, found itself subjugated and humiliated. Numerous senior military officials, unable to bear the indignity of surrender, followed in the paths of their samurai forefathers and ended their lives in ‘sepukku’, or ritual suicide. On the other hand, a large section of society, those who had first hand seen the horrors of war and violence, denounced the overly jingoistic militarism.
On 3 May, 1947, with the country under an American occupation that was to last till 1952, Japan enacted its new post-war Constitution. Most remarkable amongst the provisions of this document was Article 9, outlawing war as a means for the state to settle international disputes. In an unprecedented move, the Constitution of Japan gave up the sovereign right to wage war. This meant that Japan could have no standing military forces with ‘war potential’. A Self Defence Force (SDF) with land, air, and naval wings was set up as an extension of the domestic policing system. Minimal resources were to be allocated for military spending, and the self-defence forces that did exist were to remain limited so as to make it incapable of fighting a war.
Focusing on industrial and technological growth, Japan emerged from the ruins of World War II to become one of the most advanced, prosperous, and competitive economies in the world. In the absence of a militaristic agenda, Japan developed its industries at an enviable rate and transformed from an empire with an expansionist agenda to a democracy with the utmost respect for pacifism and human rights.
In the past few years, however, there has been much controversy around this Peace Constitution. In status quo, Japan faces its own share of security threats: that of the unpredictable North Korean regime, owning missiles capable of hitting the Japanese mainland, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and most recently, the larger threat of organisations like the ISIS, whose targets have included Japanese citizens. In the face of these security threats, there is rising opinion in Japan that the era of post-war pacifism is over, and that Japan needs to greatly enhance its offensive and defensive capabilities. At the forefront are organisations like the Nippon Kaigi, a fiercely nationalistic right wing party with historical revisionist tendencies. The ideology of this party is that of reviving what they see as Japan’s glorious imperial past. The Nippon Kaigi is staunchly in favour of the monarchy and the continuance of Shinto religious rituals in statecraft. Moreover, this group is decidedly against Article 9 of the Peace Constitution. Right wing groups, most of whom make calls to return to Japanese culture and to regain the glory of the Empire, believe that the Peace Constitution is nothing but an imposition by the occupying Americans – further humiliation, after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With China rising as a regional superpower, the sway of these organisations has also increased, with more and more people believing that remilitarisation is the only way to ensure a safe, stable, and strong Japan. In 2014, the group reportedly included 289 of 480 members of the Japanese Parliament (known as the Diet), and 15 out of 19 members of government.
It is no surprise then that the current government, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has tried to find loopholes in Article 9 to allow remilitarisation. His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government attempted to reinterpret the mandate of the Japanese Self Defence Forces to allow it to participate in joint operations and to be deployed abroad to partner with and protect Japan’s allies. This was done by bypassing the constitutional amendment procedure and by using a Cabinet Fiat without a vote in the Diet. Highly problematic both in substance and procedure, this amounts to wilful overreaching by the Executive to circumvent a vote in the Diet that would be divisive and would draw the attention of the entire nation. Such tactics make one suspicious of Abe’s motives and intentions: will the Peace Constitution suffer further dilution at the hand of a Cabinet, without the people’s consent?
This has come under severe criticism from many quarters, with thousands of anti-war Japanese raising their voices against what they see as an unconstitutional move which flies in the face of everything the modern nation stands for. Among these groups is the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs), a group launched on the 3rd of May 2015, sixty eight years from the enactment of the Constitution. Decrying Abe as a warmonger and a fascist, the predominantly student led movement has shown that any constitutional change that Abe wishes to make will not be without resistance. The student movement is bolstered by such outfits as Christian groups and Mothers’ Associations, and thus commands a large degree of influence as well.
Japan, as a nation, has found itself at the precipice of a national identity crisis – it is for the people to decide whether the Peace Constitution, hailed all over the world for the values it promotes, has outlived its usefulness. While some see the Peace Constitution as a solemn promise resulting from witnessing the devastation caused by violence, others say it was an imposition by a winning nation upon the defeated. As the anti-war movement emphasises on the primacy of peace, the hawkish elements point towards the Senkaku Islands and the rising influence of China, citing these as reasons why rearming is necessary. In an unpredictable security environment, with a wild card like the DPRK in the mix, the pro-militarisation camp believes that it is in Japan’s best security interests to augment its defence forces.
The outcome of this struggle, which is both a constitutional struggle, and, as an extension, a struggle over the very identity of Japan, will have far reaching implications for the world. It will answer, in some part, certain pertinent questions about the nature of the modern state and security. Is it truly possible to exist as a nation without an army? Can nations really give up war as a means for solving disputes, as they have been doing for thousands of years? Or is violence and conflict an unescapable part of the lives of nations and civilisations?
As the last survivors of World War II begin to die, the horrors of the war and what followed cease to exist within living memory. Perhaps this is why a section of Japanese society feels like it is time to stop living in the shadow of the war and to reassert the regional dominance of Japan. However, it is vital that the consequences of war, weaponry, and violence remain in the collective memories of humanity. We are faced by a question that is larger than the current scenario. In the modern world, with all the diplomatic safeguards and measures to ensure that we are as further away from a Hobbesian State of Nature as we have ever been, we need to question whether nations can do without armies, navies, and air forces, without spending billions of dollars every year on creating larger and more dangerous death machines. On the other hand, can a nation really afford not to have these weapons when their neighbours, competing for the same scarce resources and territories, stockpile them? Can a nation truly exist in the 21st century as a pacifist country with no interest in warfare and expansion? For Japan, only time will tell.