Japan’s neighbors reacted surprisingly hysterically to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent move to loosen restrictions on the Self-Defense Forces so that they could engage in collective self-defense.
“Japan is intensifying (its) military buildup to break the postwar order,” warned a senior Chinese military official.
“Japan historically tends to think of the Korean Peninsula as its old territory that must be retaken,” proclaimed a prominent Korean scholar.
The official Chinese press railed against “Abe’s Faustian flirtation with [the] specter of war,” his “thirst for military glory,” and his “connivance in the revival of the devilish militarism that once wrecked Asia.”
Having traveled to Japan some 70 or 80 times over the course of the last three decades, I think I now have a pretty good feel for the place. Japan is the least militaristic country I know, with the possible exception of Iceland.
How can intelligent adults believe such nonsense?
It is possible that they don’t. It is possible that hysterical statements like these are designed to keep Japan on the defensive and to keep the world’s attention focused on Japan’s past—instead of, say, on China’s or Korea’s present.
This is very dangerous. Statements such as these poison regional relations, increase tension and suspicion, frustrate cooperation and, at the end of the day, may result in a shooting war that no one actually wants or expects.
Deliberately fanning fears of Japanese militarism when you know them to be false is like shouting “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater.
But what if these statements are sincere?
In the course of research I and my colleagues are conducting at the Center for International Governance Innovation, we have noted that most of the hysteria focuses on Abe personally and on his putative “right-wing nationalist” fellow travelers.
The charge is not that the Japanese people as a whole seek war, conquest or the return of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, but that enough Japanese do to represent a real danger.
Every country has fringe groups, of course, and Japan is no exception. In Japan, the most extreme are more xenophobic than militarist.
Some Japanese nationalists hold views that neighboring countries understandably find deeply offensive: for example, denying or minimizing the 1937 Nanking Massacre or the wartime exploitation of “comfort women” by the Imperial Japanese Army. Morally speaking, of course, this falls into the same category as Holocaust denial. But it does not amount to advocating the reconquest of Asia, and in any case theirs are not mainstream views. The overwhelming majority in Japan soundly reject them.
What about Abe himself?
It is safe to say that he is a proud Japanese. He chafes at Japan’s systematic postwar demonization. He thinks that it is high time that the world moved on from the 1930s. He clearly believes that Japan has been unfairly singled out for bad behavior in the past. And he has displayed some of the very same insensitivity that makes it easy for the fear mongers to associate him with more radical rightist views.
But he has never said or done anything to indicate that he would like to turn the clock back 80 years.
Even if a Japanese prime minister had secret militarist desires, there is absolutely no prospect whatsoever that he or she could realize them.
Japan is a sophisticated, well-functioning democracy with a weak executive, a professional military, robust norms of civilian control and a profound aversion to war.
The overwhelming majority of Japanese strongly believe that Japan should only use force in very narrow limited circumstances, and certainly not offensively. They disapprove both of collective self-defense and of Abe’s “reinterpreting” the Constitution so as to permit what are, in the grand scheme of things, minor and perfectly sensible changes that still leave the SDF operating under tighter constraints than any other military in the world.
On top of everything else, even if there were some magic overnight sea change in the Japanese gestalt, Japan already has one of the world’s oldest populations and would not be able to find enough young men to fill the ranks for conquest. Retirees make for lousy conscripts.
So the whole idea is absurd. Anyone who genuinely fears a revival of Japanese militarism badly misunderstands Japanese politics and society.
This is a case where ignorance is even more dangerous than dishonesty. Sincere alarms about Japanese militarism have all of the same negative effects as tactical ones. But someone using the fear tactically is unlikely to feel any urgent need to preempt it. Someone who believes it might.
It is time to put this groundless fear to rest, for everyone’s sake.
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David A. Welch is a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation, chair of global security at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, and professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, Canada.