Japan’s ongoing and long-running debate about its relationship with military force and role in the world was marked by two coincidental but related events last week. A panel proposing new interpretations of Japan’s pacifist constitution released a report a day before the latest Godzilla flick hit screens around the world. Both developments are very different views on the same thing. For 60 years and counting, Japan hasn’t really come to a concrete conclusion on whether or not it really should have a military, and if so, what that military should do.
The quick snapshot background: Japan is officially a pacifist nation because early August 1945 was a really, really rough couple of weeks.
A lot of countries got tangled up in the violent mess known as World War II, but Japan is a very strong contender for the title of “Lost World War II Harder than Anyone Else.” In less than 10 days, it both managed to be on the losing side of humanity’s first nuclear war and was completely defeated for the first time in its entire 2,500-year history.
As a result of that episode, when the new Japanese “Peace Constitution” was drawn up, it included Article 9, which called quits on the whole military thing altogether:
ARTICLE 9. 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. (2) 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.
Leading up to WWII, Japan was modernizing like crazy, eventually mutating into a militaristic, expansionist jag. This meant Japan got involved in trading shots all over Asia, which in turn came to an abrupt, crashing halt. Losing entire cities to strategic bombing was one thing, but single planes were now wiping out entire cities with a single bomb. Next thing you know, Japan’s proud streak of not-being-conquered had come to a violent end. (Even then, the allies couldn’t extract a complete unconditional surrender — Japan wouldn’t give up if it meant deposing their emperor.)
The resulting psychic culture shock of that wild ride is still working its way through society. Most of the time it’s a pretty subtle process, but sometimes it turns into discussions about the interpretation of Article 9. At times, it shows up in Godzilla movies.
By 1954, Japanese people realized that having absolutely no military — even for defense — might be overshooting the mark and decided that it was OK to work within the UN’s inherent right of self-defense clause — and actually defend your country. To square this with the constitution that prohibits having a military, Japan created the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF). So, since it’s not a military, the JSDF is, strictly technically and legally speaking, a super-big and very heavily armed police force assigned to the Invading Japan Squad.
Redefining Article 9 has turned into a protracted debate about how much military is enough, and how much a large military is an invitation to get involved in other people’s business. After being burnt by excessive militarism, but recognizing that a country may want or need some way to responding when things heat up, Japan has slowly been edging away from a strict interpretation of Article 9, towards what the rest of the world might call a normal military.
The May 15 report of the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security — which has been supplemented by a lot of articles, speeches, and events — has brought the idea of “collective self-defense” to the fore. If Japan has the inherent right of self-defense, does it have a right to defend others as well? Or, more accurately, can Japan loosen its self-imposed constraints on collective self-defense?
This question has been simmering for years. One consequence of Article 9 is that Japan can make for a pretty crummy military ally. An alliance with Japan puts a country on the hook for pitching into Japan’s defense, but it’s not at all clear if Japan would legally be allowed to come to the aid of a partner in times of need (such as shooting down a missile bound for an allied warship). Japan is well aware of the fact that Article 9 can mean it is blocked from looking out for anybody but themselves. Which is not who you want to be in the increasingly partnership-heavy security environment.
The other big factor driving the current debate is “grey zone” threats, where the concept of self-defense is more complex. Both the spirit and letter of Article 9 make figuring out rules of engagement a tricky exercise. This plays hell with deployments for peacekeeping operations. The whole mess unfolding in Ukraine vividly illustrates that the gap between war and peace is getting big enough to move entire parts of countries through. While Japan has a much stronger defense than Ukraine, the crisis serves to show that the use of force is becoming less and less clear-cut, even without Article 9.
Nicholas Szechenyi, Deputy Director of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE News that there are three main reasons that Japan might look to reinterpret Article 9.
First, Szechenyi noted that a rethinking would give the country more tools for taking a leadership role in its alliance relationships. Being able to work together with allied ships, rather than to jump on and off the sidelines based on which ship is shooting at which target, would do a lot to improve the survivability of the entire joint fleet. Being able to do its part in a military alliance and come to someone else’s aid would also mean that Japan isn’t such a potential risk for partners, thus strengthening regional security relationships.
The second rationale involves improving Japanese efforts to strengthen their own defense. Reframing Article 9 interpretation could help the JSDF and civilian leadership address those pesky “grey zone” issues, giving the JSDF something to do other than stand idly by and watch. This, in turn, gives Japan a slightly broader range of choices for deterrence and signaling, which is only going to get more important in coming decades.
The third point on international leadership goes to the idea that if Japan can take a bigger role in international peacekeeping, it will be a bigger player on the international scene. Over the last decade, Japan has been more involved with some international deployments. But, as Szechenyi explained, Article 9 has cast a long shadow, so JSDF units have to operate under the burden of a lot of complex and sometimes arcane rules, which limit Japan’s role as a partner, even in absolutely non-combat reconstruction roles.
This discussion of Article 9 and collective self-defense goes to a deeper debate captured by the May 16 release of the newest Godzilla flick. Both ask: How do we really feel about the terrifying, capricious, unstoppable, and terribly violent phenomenon of war?
Godzilla first came to Japanese theaters in 1954, the same year that the JSDF was founded, leading to a franchise of 30 movies, and counting. The Godzilla movies are sometimes discussed as metaphorical explorations of the aftermath of World War II, nuclear power and the atomic bomb, and a whole mess of other things. The messages aren’t always clear, but then again, this is a peek into Japan’s cultural dreams and subconscious — not a formal, rational debate about war and society.
The Godzilla franchise suggests two important points about Japan’s debate on Article 9. First, the longevity of the franchise indicates that this is a long-running debate dealing with some fundamental questions about destruction, only partly informed by current events and analysis, and that it won't end any time soon (another Godzilla installment was just OK'd). The other thing is that there’s not really going to be the matter of solving the problem of, winning the debate on, or finding an answer to the question of war, any more than it’s possible to solve, win, or answer Godzilla. And however you plan on facing Godzilla, you can bet it's probably going to involve some tanks and jets.
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