Just one month before the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed legislation through Japan’s Lower House allowing the nation’s military to play a more proactive role in overseas conflicts. If the legislation that passed July 16 becomes law, it would allow Japanese troops to go into battle overseas for the first time since World War II ended.
The legislation is part of Abe’s call for a more muscular and self-assertive nation. Another proposal would revise Japan’s famed “peace constitution” to allow it to become a full-fledged military power in East Asia.
The timing of Abe’s initiative is surely not coincidental. The anniversary of Japan’s defeat provides an opportune moment to reimagine Japan’s role in the region and the world.
Over the past two decades, Japan has watched the rise of China with growing concern. But with China increasingly challenging America’s military supremacy in East Asia, with North Korea openly flaunting its nuclear capabilities and with numerous disputes between China and its neighbors over territorial claims, Japanese remilitarization can only further destabilize the already fragile situation in East Asia.
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Now is indeed the time to imagine a role for a more assertive Japan, in both East Asia and the rest of the world. But it should not be as a military power. Japan’s role for the next 70 years should be as a global peacemaker.
On Aug. 15, 1945, Japan announced its surrender in World War II, just days after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the aftermath of defeat and occupation, the postwar Japanese government passed a radical new constitution guaranteeing political freedoms, human rights and gender equality. The most far-reaching clause of the constitution is its famous Article Nine: “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.”
Although it is well-known that the entire document was written by Americans and thrust on the Japanese government against its will, the constitution – and particularly Article Nine – has enjoyed remarkably enduring popularity among the Japanese people. Underlying this popularity were the people’s utter weariness after their nation’s long and futile war effort, their sense of complete betrayal by their wartime leadership and the searing experience of the Allied bombing campaigns against Japanese cities.
The two atomic bombings, in particular, lent the Japanese people a sense that they were uniquely qualified to lead a global peace movement aimed at ensuring no nation would ever again have to suffer the horrors of atomic war. Complementing the government’s commitment to the “peace constitution,” a powerful grassroots peace movement grew up in the postwar years. The movement is still strong: More than 60,000 people marched outside Japan’s parliament to protest the new legislation.
In spite of these factors, its alliance with the United States forced Japan to align itself with American foreign policy through much of the postwar period, including supporting America’s aggressive wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and hosting a powerful American military and naval presence.
But the time has come for Japan to play a more independent and assertive role. In today’s unstable era of multiplying conflicts, global flashpoints and superpower fragility, enduring solutions can come only from multilateral negotiations led by a powerful and credible peacemaker.
Japan is rich, well-respected in most parts of the world and with the nation’s constitution and influential peace movement has well-established peace-making credentials. Japan offers a model to aspiring nations of the benefits of peaceful development, and it has a strong record of helping developing nations.
None of us should forget the horrific suffering inflicted by militarist aggression during World War II. Japan’s neighbors, and many of the Japanese people themselves, are right to insist on a full acknowledgment of the horrors and crimes of those dark days.
But now Japan has an opportunity to use its history as a powerful impetus for global peace. We desperately need a powerful and influential peace-maker on this troubled planet. Japan may just be the world’s best hope for a more peaceful and prosperous future.
Simon Partner is a history professor at Duke University who specializes in 19th and 20th century Japanese history.