The Existential Imperative of Japan’s Article 9
In the wake of the carnage of World War II, a defeated and Allied-occupied Japan adopted a new constitution drafted in collaboration with the United States, supplanting its monarchy with a parliamentary democracy. Chief among the Allies’ concerns was preventing the island nation from ever again embracing militarist aggression. Thus, enshrined within the new Japanese constitution is Article 9, which states:
“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. In order 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.”
The Allies in effect militarily neutered the state of Japan, yet they didn’t leave it unprotected. In 1952, the United States and Japan entered into a treaty of mutual cooperation and security, effectively turning the latter state into an American protectorate. Decades later, in light of recent North Korean aggression, Japan finds itself questioning whether to continue its pacifist recourse, torn between securing its existence and remaining faithful to its moral ancestry.
Despite the ostensibly absolutist pacifism embedded in Article 9’s text, Japan is not fully demilitarized, maintaining a de facto military force for defensive purposes only, aptly named the Japan Self-Defense Forces, or JSDF. Established in 1954, the JSDF has never been deployed into combat, mobilizing only for humanitarian United Nations peacekeeping missions in countries such as Iraq and South Sudan.
Kim Jong Un’s regime has dramatically raised the stakes in Japan’s security debate through its monomaniacal pursuit of a functional nuclear arsenal. Anyone following the ongoing nuclear brinksmanship between the United States and North Korea has no doubt noticed Japan’s precarious position in the middle of the crisis. The rogue Korean regime has now launched several ballistic missiles over the Japanese mainland, escalating its provocations to an all-time high. In the face of such blatant military aggression, Japan’s strange and uneasy military situation has called for renewed scrutiny of its defense policy. As has been established, Japan has the right to self-defense. Yet, recent debate in the nation has evoked the question of just how far that right extends. Take, for instance, Japan’s missile defense capabilities. Article 9 allows the nation to protect itself against any incoming missiles by shooting them down, but more hawkish defense advocates are pushing for the ability to launch a preemptive strike, destroying a hypothetical North Korean missile while still on the launch pad. Constitutional literalists argue that a preemptive strike—even in the name of defense—is an act of aggression.
The debate over weapons logistics and the scope of defense evokes larger, existential questions. What is a worse fate for Japan: vulnerability to its nuclear-capable, unpredictable neighbor or turning back towards the path of military might? There are ghosts on either side. While Japan must reconcile itself with the troubling atrocities that led to the instatement of Article 9, the country also has unique insight into the chilling ramifications of nuclear warfare.
We must also consider the implications of the changing global political climate. Given the United States’ recent regression into nationalism and isolationism, can Japan reasonably expect the United States to give full military defense in the possibility of war?
However perilous the geopolitical situation may seem, one thing remains clear: Japan will not (at least in the remotely near future) develop nuclear weapons. A signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, Japan also unofficially resolved in 1971 never to possess, manufacture, or allow nuclear weapons on its soil. Though Japan has not totally ruled out the possibility of someday wielding the power of nuclear weapons, it seems unlikely that the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will escape Japan’s conscience anytime soon
Japan’s recent election has given Prime Minister Abe a strong mandate and the necessary legislative majorities to proceed with ratifying Article 9 however he sees fit. Up against a highly fractured opposition, Abe may continue to lead for the foreseeable future, guiding Japan through a treacherous standoff with North Korea. Japan’s constitutional and moral future is in Abe’s hands.
Yet, if we assume that Japan will not go nuclear, the current defense discourse is rendered somewhat moot. In the face of weapons of mass destruction, conventional instruments of war are rendered obsolete. If North Korea ever makes good on its threat of nuclear attack, Japan will have no choice but to rely on the United States (the world’s best-armed nuclear power) for protection. For better or worse, Article 9 has stood the test of time; Japan’s pacifist mentality has hardly wavered in the seventy years since their constitution’s adoption. In the face of the existential threat that is a nuclear-armed North Korea, Japan essentially has two responses: a fatalist resignation to the ebb and flow of the geopolitical tides or a self-deterministic reconstruction of a new Japanese military power to stand as a bulwark of defense and eventual peace. Either way, its history will follow.