“The four islands of the archipelago should be sunken into the sea by the nuclear bomb…Japan is no longer needed to exist near us.”
So warned the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, the Kim Jong-Un regime’s foreign propaganda arm, in a statement issued September 14, 2017.
The next morning, residents of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four major islands, awoke to blaring sirens.
A Hwasong-12 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), launched from near Pyongyang, was sailing over the island. North Korea had launched, unannounced, a missile capable of bearing a nuclear ordnance sixteen times stronger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima decades earlier.
Agonizing minutes later, a J-Alert text notified citizens that the missile had landed in the Pacific Ocean. The threat had passed, this time.
The Kim regime is infamous for its bombastic rhetoric and its penchant for casually tossing around nondescript threats of annihilation. Historically, regular saber-rattling was all it took to persuade a cautious global community to lift sanctions and grant fuel concessions.
But now, ready to call a perceived North Korean bluff, Washington has upped the ante with vitriol of its own. Shortly after Donald Trump threatened it with “fire and fury” in late August 2017, North Korea launched the first of two nuclear Hwasong-12 missiles over Japan. The second came on September 15.
The brimstone has come, and Tokyo has motioned that the time for dialogue is over. For the first time in decades, the State of Japan is seriously considering militarization.
Officially, Japan maintains that economic pressure can curb the North Korean threat. In a statement released on September 17, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe warned that, in response to the “unprecedented, grave, and imminent threat” from North Korea, the global community must “enforce the successive [sanctions] resolutions in order to prevent North Korea from obtaining the goods, technologies, funds and people to further develop its missiles and nuclear program.”
Abe’s international statement may have focused on applying concerted economic pressure on the hermit kingdom, but domestically, he has used a different angle.
Japan has no military. Seventy years ago—and just two years removed from defeat in World War II—a new State of Japan enacted its constitution under U.S. supervision, with Article 9 declaring that “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.”
But as U.S. occupational forces withdrew, the Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) were formed in 1954 under the umbrella of the National Police Agency. Throughout the Cold War, the JSDF served as the constitutionally defenseless country’s bulwark against the Soviet Union.
In 2010, new military guidelines directed the JSDF to focus on China, particularly in regard to the Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited archipelago controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan. Established to protect Japan from the threat of communism, the JSDF now stands diametrically opposed to a new boogeyman across the East China Sea. And despite its humble beginnings, the JSDF now commands a budget equal to one percent of Japan’s GDP. What was once a security detail of shallow water submarines and helicopter carriers has now ballooned into the fourth most formidable defense force in the world.
Despite its formidability, the JSDF has long been viewed as a fundamentally defensive measure part of Japan’s proud commitment to pacifism. Speaking with The Politic, Ohshue Gatanaga ’21 of Komatsu, Japan said that “the Japanese people are prideful that they are a country that has not engaged in war, or taken aggressive military action [since World War II], and it has pride in being the only country in the world with that policy.”
But on May 3, 2017, four days after North Korea launched an intermediate range KN-15 missile from Bukchang, Abe announced a plan to effect constitutional reform to make “explicit the status” of the JSDF by 2020. In early August, newly appointed Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera motioned that he would “consider” the option of allowing the Japanese Self-Defense Forces the ability to directly attack North Korean missile bases.
In an interview with The Politic, Damon Wells Professor of Political Science Frances Rosenbluth insisted that Abe’s attempt to expand the JSDF’s role was not unprecedented—a 2001 reform allowed Japanese troops to support U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq—but noted that this time, “he is letting nationalism ratchet upwards into bigger and bigger tensions with [North Korea].”
Made wary by the horrors of nuclear annihilation, Japan has historically been hesitant to support not only nuclear proliferation but also formal militarization. Most believe that the Self-Defense Forces are already strong enough to fulfill their purpose, and for years, motions to revise Article 9 have fallen flat.
Now, however, Abe’s suggestion to revise the constitution is gaining traction. Abe used the North Korean threat as a campaign issue in Japan’s October 22 general election. As Rosenbluth explained, the situation is “playing into his hands” in his drive to legitimize the Japanese military.
“Japanese voters trust [Abe] because they feel they cannot trust the opposition party in times of crisis,” said Seiki Tanaka, a visiting assistant professor at the Yale MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. “It’s matter of framing,” Tanaka said. He noted that when political discourse focuses on an external threat, people tend to support incumbents.
Abe’s strategy seems to have worked: his coalition won the two-thirds supermajority necessary to initiate the amendment process. They had secured an even larger share of seats in the previous election in 2014, yet even Abe admitted at the time that he lacked the mandate to change the monolithic clause preventing a Japanese standing military presence. Any constitutional revision would require majority approval in a referendum, and there was no such popular support for changing Article 9 three years ago.
According to a poll conducted this April, nearly half of Japanese voters now support Abe’s plan to revise Article 9 by 2020.
The question is largely one of legitimization. While Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has motioned for more radical change in the past, Toyo University Professor Katsuyuki Yakushiji argues that any actual constitutional reform will be relatively tame.
Writing for The Tokyo Foundation, Yakushiji noted that “in his recent call for change, Abe backed away from the kind of wholesale revision that got the LDP into hot water in the past. This time Abe is calling for just a few amendments—a relatively muted change to Article 9…[he] wants to be able to say that he oversaw the first revision of the postwar Constitution, no matter how limited, and his strategy for achieving that is to zero in on the sort of changes least likely to provoke a backlash.”
Abe has leveraged political appointments to effect this controversial constitutional change. When the previous defense minister suddenly resigned amid a scandal this summer, Abe used concerns over the North Korean threat to consolidate his pro-militarization position by appointing current Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera.
Onodera may be instrumental to Abe’s goal of militarizing the JSDF. The two are ideologically similar: defense analyst Titli Basu told The Politic in an e-mail exchange that Onodera “shares some of Abe’s conservative agenda and has been affiliated to the right-wing Nippon Kaigi, a group which advocates for constitutional revision.”
Not only is Onodera a reliable ally for Abe, but he also brings significant political capital and military expertise. After serving as Defense Minister from 2012 to 2014, Onodera led the LDP’s Research Commission on Security. Under Onodera’s direction, Basu noted, the LDP studied the possibility of counterattack capabilities and ways to intercept missiles landing waters close to Japan. Onodera himself has argued in favor of developing strike capability on enemy bases and increasing missile-defense fortifications.
Onodera’s calls for a proactive posture are likely to be heeded: North Korea is far from Japan’s only foreign policy concern. Russia has recently moved anti-aircraft guns onto the contested Kuril Islands just north of Hokkaido, stating that it wishes to “protect the territory of the Russian Federation, its borders, both from the sea and from the air.”
Russia first seized these islands shortly before Japan’s surrender in World War II, and the two nations have not signed a peace treaty since.
Tokyo has found itself mired in similarly complex situations with numerous East Asian countries, heightening the stakes of potential militarization. It contests the Liancourt Rocks with South Korea and the Senkaku Islands with China and Taiwan. Further, Japan’s failure to acknowledge the abuse of Korean and Chinese “comfort women”—sex slaves held by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II—keeps relations cold, and Abe’s visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which holds the remains of multiple Class-A war criminals, often spark protests.
Rosenbluth said, “It certainly doesn’t help…Japan really cannot afford to be in a bad relationship with [South] Korea, but this administration has remained reluctant to show remorse for the [situation of] Korean comfort women.” In a tense political climate still overshadowed by a decades-old war, rapid remilitarization by a still-unrepentant Japan may be too much for its neighbors to accept.
Historically, postwar Japan has relied upon American mediating power to navigate tense geopolitical relations. Donald Trump’s mercuriality has jeopardized that relationship.
Trump’s campaign-trail position criticized Japan’s military reliance on America, repeatedly chiding Japan for not paying its “fair share.” Gatanaga was quick to point out that “the amount of money that Japan pays the United States for its defenses is absurd…Japan has been paying so much money, but adequate [U.S.] support is not there.”
But Japan’s enormous financial contribution—estimated to be around two billion dollars annually—seems to weigh little on White House rhetoric.
“It could be that Japan will have to defend itself against North Korea,” Trump told a rally last August. “You always have to be prepared to walk.”
Trump is not the only factor diminishing trust in American efficacy in East Asia. Rosenbluth told The Politic, “Sovereignty conflicts, China militarizing…China is a bigger deal than North Korea, China is a regional hegemon and U.S. will not be able to balance the power.”
China’s recent moves to assert its claims over islands in the South China Sea have allowed it to consolidate a sphere of maritime influence in the Asian theater, asserting itself as a regional power unfettered by American naval prowess.
In the face of this shift in influence, Japan must begin to look elsewhere—and perhaps inwards—for defensive measures. “While the U.S.-Japan alliance continues to be the core of Tokyo’s defense and security policy, the depth of Washington’s commitment to the region is a concern,” Basu warned. “To cope with the fluidity of the regional security landscape, Japan is diversifying its options.”