Will North Korea Drive Japan to Remilitarize?

Thanks to the legacy of American occupation, Japan hasn't had much in the way of a military since World War II. An election this past weekend might help change that.
October 24, 2017, 9:55pm
Left image: (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images) Right image: (Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)

Shinzō Abe is not a very popular politician, but he keeps winning elections anyway. This weekend, the Japanese prime minister's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which is actually right of center, managed to retain its supermajority in the country's diet (or parliament) by throttling the opposition at the polls. Abe called the snap election—a new vote forced by the government in a parliamentary system—in no small part to secure a fresh mandate for his desire to revisit a clause in the country's constitution forbidding Japan from ever waging war. Thanks to the legacy of American occupation, the mainstream of Japanese politics has historically been just fine with letting the US worry about threats from China and North Korea, but 2017 hasn't exactly been a normal year.

Support for Abe surged after North Korea tested missiles that flew over Japan in August. Meanwhile, the PM's opposition to the left splintered. Sensing an opportunity born out of his constituents' fear and opponents' weakness, Abe forced the vote this past weekend. And even though the decision to dissolve and rebuild parliament can backfire on an ambitious prime minister, as it did for Theresa May earlier this year in the UK, Abe's LDP ended up with 313 seats out of a possible 465 in the lower house.

Now the most significant obstacle standing in the way of revising what's known as Article 9, which dictates the Japan cannot be an aggressor abroad, is a popular referendum on the issue. That may not happen anytime soon, but almost immediately after the vote, North Korean state media ran a report accusing Abe of "pav[ing] the groundwork for a re-invasion of the Korean peninsula."

But is that really true? And how radical are Abe and his nationalist supporters? For some perspective on how likely it is that Japan will take bold new steps toward re-militarization, and what that might mean for the whole North Korea situation, I called up Amy Catalinac, an assistant professor of politics at New York University who focuses on Japanese politics and foreign security policy. Here's what we talked about.

VICE: Was Abe talking about revising Article 9 as far back as his first run at prime minister, or is that something that only started coming up more recently, with North Korea behaving more menacingly?
Amy Catalinac: His party was formed in 1955, and had, as its founding convention and sort of with its founding charter, [the stance that] it would like to revise the constitution. But for many years this was totally off the agenda, and no one really talked about it. Some members of the party may have talked about it with some groups of voters, but it was sort of off [the grid]. And we can say now that it's on the agenda. Abe himself was prime minister between 2006 and 2007, and he wanted to revise the constitution then but had to step down.

He has made no secret of the fact that he wants to revise the constitution [this time around].

How does the typical Japanese person feel about this potential revision? Are they gunning for it, so to speak?
The change that the LDP wants to make is to the pacifist clause of constitution, and it's fair to say that a majority of Japanese voters do not see the need to [do that]. Abe's going to be facing an uphill battle.

In order to revise the constitution, two-thirds of the lower half and the upper half of the Diet have to OK it, and then [Abe] needs to get a majority of voters to support it in a referendum. One of the reasons it wasn't on the agenda for many years was that the LDP simply didn't have two-thirds [support] in the lower half or the upper half. I'm not sure if the public is going to say yes, but another indicator that the public is still resistant to this idea is that the LDP went into this election with one party that was sort of the major opposition party—the Democratic Party. And one of the reasons the prime minister called the snap election now rather than wasting a year and two months, which is how long they had left in their terms, is that the Democratic Party was doing so badly, and he [apparently] thought he would be able to take advantage of that.

But then, when Abe called the election, the Tokyo governor decided to form a party of her own. She's become very popular recently, so she took advantage of this momentum to form a new party called the Hope Party, and she herself is committed to constitutional revision. She's actually very similar to Abe in a lot of her preferences about national security and constitutional revision. She said, "We're only going to accept members of the Democratic Party if they conform to our policies on constitutional revision and national security." And some of these members were like, "OK fine, I'll join your party, and I'll agree with you." But some of them were like, "You know, we don't support constitutional revision," so they formed a new party called the Constitutional Democratic Party. And that party, it's fair to say, did an amazing job in this election. It tripled the number of seats it won. It amassed a very large Twitter following very quickly.

So this party I would say, is a single-issue party dedicated to stopping constitutional revision, and this party did really well. It will probably be able to mount an effective campaign against constitutional revision.

Can you explain why so many Japanese people are so opposed to the idea of having a military set up like most other countries?
Japanese people see that they experienced a massive increase in economic and technological power in the 60s and the 70s, became the second largest economy in the world, and [simultaneously] adopted this low-profile international role with their foreign policy. So a lot of Japanese people are like, "I don't see the need to change."

A lot of people are supportive of Article 9 because they see it as being something that is unique in the world, something that made the standard of living in Japan rise dramatically. And they're nervous. They're nervous about being entrapped or entangled in American wars overseas, and they're worried about sending the wrong signal to Japan's neighbors. They don't want to signal to South Korea and China that Japan is gearing up for war again. And so maintaining Article 9 and maintaining all of these bans on the exercise of collective self-defense, bans on the types of weaponry and equipment the self-defense forces can have—these are all things that were partly designed to send the signal that Japan is not threatening.

How does the United States feel about this? The US drafted Article 9, of course, but now with North Korea being so volatile, are they—is Trump—itching for more armed support in the region?
I think the line in [Washington] is that they would like for Japan to do more within the context of the US-Japan alliance. So they would like Japan to be more of an ally that's capable of exercising collective self-defense. So if US troops were engaged in a contingency somewhere, they would like Japanese forces to be able to assist them somewhere if they come under attack. I think that's sort of the minimum one should expect from an alliance partner.

But interestingly enough, in 2015, Abe decided instead of revising the constitution to give Japan this right to collective self-defense, he would instead change the interpretation of the constitution.

What's the distinction? Is it more troops, or what?
Because Article 9 bans "war potential," the government had to come up with what type of capabilities are [clearly] exclusively for self-defense. So the Japanese government came up with all of these things that went beyond the minimum necessary for self defense. They can't have aircraft carriers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, bomber fleets, cruise missiles, or nuclear weapons.

The military right now is very good for defensive stuff. It's incapable of launching an attack on another country. So if North Korea hits Japan with a missile, Japan actually doesn't have the ability to retaliate. Some members of Abe's party would like Japan to develop the capability to strike back when attacked by a missile. In Japanese, this used to be referred to as a "preemptive strike," but now it's referred to as a "retaliatory strike." However, Abe has quashed the discussion within his party, saying that its not the right time to consider this option.

But even if you have the best defense system in the world, and even if you do decide it's OK to retaliate, if a nuke strikes, the country's defense policy might look pretty flimsy or foolhardy, right?
If the United States is dealing with a contingency on the Korean peninsula, then Japan can technically help defend US troops that are engaged in that contingency. Until 2015, they couldn't do that. And the government has actually been very slow in implementing rules of engagement, saying exactly how the self-defense forces would [work]. What I'm trying to say is that the government has found workarounds for the constitution. They can't revise it, but they can revise the interpretation.

So what Abe wants to do now is just clarify that the self-defense forces are a legitimate organ of the state. And that's actually a scale-back, and it doesn't really make sense, I mean from my perspective, the self-defense forces have existed since 1954, and if you said, "Oh, look, these self defense forces that have existed since 1954 are constitutional," it sort of suggests that they haven't been constitutional for all of those years.

I guess I'm surprised to hear all this. Fear is powerful motivator in America, and with people getting text alerts about missile launches, I would think everyone in Japan would be desperate to beef up their military without caveat.
Therein lies the puzzle that motivates my entire work. I completely share your surprise, because it just doesn't make any sense. North Korea launched a missile over Japan recently and the government had to issue these alerts that said "Japanese people make sure you duck and cover because there's a missile coming your way. It's not being aimed at Japan, but it's going over Japan and something could fall onto you." And so even though that is happening, Japanese people are resistant to revising the constitution. It's a puzzle, definitely.

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.