Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his critics charge, has gone on the warpath again.
On the contrary, say his supporters: His renewed drive to revise Japan’s pacifist Constitution and to loosen its shackles on the military is simply a long-overdue bid to defend his country in an increasingly threatening world.
After a two-year hiatus, Mr. Abe has seized on the recent murders of two Japanese hostages by Islamic State militants in Syria to revive his campaign for a more activist Japanese security policy.
In an unusually emotional speech to parliament earlier this month, he appealed for “the biggest reform since the end of the war … revising the Constitution.”
But in this bustling port city, two hours northeast of Tokyo by high-speed train and the birthplace of hostage Kenji Goto, it was not easy one recent morning to find citizens who agree with Abe. Extreme caution seemed to mark most people's mood.
“Abe is trying to change things too fast, too drastically,” said Matsumoto Moriyo, a retired architect, as he thumbed through a Nikon brochure outside a camera shop. “And if he changed the Constitution, there would be no end to military expansion.”
After 70 years under a Constitution drafted by US occupiers to prevent a resurgence of militarism, “we have become addicted to peace,” said Kanae Takahashi, wearing chef’s whites and clogs as she took a break in the wintry sun from the restaurant where she works. “We are not fit for fighting.”
That is not what the prime minister – who in his recent speech urged “people of Japan, be confident!” – wants to hear.
But the opinion polls are clear. The daily Yomiuri Shimbun found in annual surveys that popular support for changing the Constitution fell from 44 percent in 2004 to 30 percent in 2014. Opposition rose from 46 percent to 60 percent.
In light of such sentiment, changing the Constitution “is not an immediate policy option,” says one of Abe’s aides, though it remains close to the prime minister’s heart.
A focus instead on reinterpretation
Instead, the government is preparing to present parliament with a batch of bills putting flesh on the bones of a cabinet decision last July to reinterpret Article 9, which forbids the use of armed force, and to expand the overseas role of the military.
Details of the legislation are still under discussion, but the government wants Japanese soldiers to be able to go to the aid of allied forces under attack, exercising collective self-defense. A new law would also provide permanent authorization to dispatch troops abroad, ending the need for a specific law and lengthy debate before each deployment.
Other bills would remove current geographic limits on Japanese military action and permit the inclusion of weapons and ammunition in logistical support Japan might offer other nations.
The government calls this new approach a “proactive peace orientation.” What that means, according to a senior government official, is that “we will continue to commit to the peaceful orientation enshrined in the Constitution and we will never sway from that basic principle. But we will legislate to increase deterrence to meet new challenges.”
Even such modest moves alarm many Japanese. 53 percent of respondents to a Jiji Press poll two weeks ago opposed overseas military operations in the framework of collective self-defense, such as joining minesweeping operations should they be needed to keep shipping lanes open.
Kanta Shimura, a studious-looking young man preparing for entrance exams to Sendai’s architecture school, explains his reservations, saying such operations are a slippery slope.
“I am worried that we might one day get dragged into someone else’s war” if the Japanese Self-Defense Forces were given the latitude that Abe seeks, he says. “I’m concerned about Japan always following the United States.”
Abe's planned reforms, says one retired general who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record, would change the dynamic. “It is fair to say that if the legislation passes there will no longer be any automatic brakes” on Japanese military deployment abroad. “But," he notes, "we will still have the choice whether to go or not.”
In point of fact, although the Constitution states that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained,” the charter has been interpreted in such a way that Japan now has the seventh-largest military budget in the world and spends it on large and well-equipped forces.
Japan sent noncombat troops to support US forces in Iraq in 2004, and the country opened its first overseas military base in 2011 in Djibouti to coordinate its ships and aircraft participating in antipiracy patrols off the Horn of Africa.
“They have done a lot already,” says Grant Newsham, a fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and a retired US Marine colonel. “Article 9 is just an excuse not to do things that they don’t want to do.”
The threats closer to home
Though Mr. Goto’s murder focused attention on Japan’s inability – both legally and operationally – to do anything about such crises in the Middle East, it is the threat of danger closer to home that looms largest.
North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile programs are one such threat; China’s rise is another. “The big thing driving Japanese nationalism and the new defense posture is the perception of China,” says Jeff Kingston, who teaches politics at Temple University in Tokyo. “Beijing’s muscle flexing … has worried the Japanese people.”
Japanese maritime patrols regularly intercept Chinese vessels in or around the disputed waters of the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea that China calls the Diaoyu and claims as its own.
Washington would like to see Japan extend its reach beyond that region into the South China Sea, where China claims maritime territory that all of its neighbors regard as international waters.
“I think that JSDF (Japan Self-Defense Forces) operations in the South China Sea make sense in the future,” Adm. Robert Thomas, the top US Navy officer in Asia, said last month. “The Chinese … overmatch their neighbors” in those waters, he added.
If the Japanese parliament passes the bills to be presented in the coming weeks, “such naval patrols are possible,” says Akihisa Nagashima, a former deputy Defense minister and now a prominent opposition member of parliament.
“If China goes too far, we have to respond properly” to take some of the burden off the US Navy, he adds, though he would want Japanese vessels to be joined by others from Australia and Southeast Asia.
Painful memories of Japanese occupation during World War II are not stopping countries such as The Philippines from seeking Japanese equipment and training to strengthen their hand in a territorial tussle with China over islands in the South China Sea.
“We have explained to Southeast Asian nations what we mean by our proactive policy, and it has been more or less accepted,” says the senior government official. “The reaction was OK. Our approach over the last 70 years to peace and prosperity in the region is a great asset for us today.”
History still echoes for many Japanese
As Abe pushes his new vision, Japan’s aggressive militarist past seems more of a hurdle at home than abroad. The prime minister’s apparent sympathy for revisionists who see Japan’s wartime role as noble feeds fears of his foreign policy’s possible implications.
“Many Japanese might say his foreign policy is very sound, and reflects the new East Asian environment,” says Masaru Kohno, a professor of politics at Waseda University in Tokyo. “But his attitude to history issues makes it far more difficult for them to endorse his policies.”
Back in Sendai, Hiroshi Saito, dressed in a sharp new suit as he heads to a job interview, shares such reservations. “We used to fight big wars,” he points out. “It could cause a big problem if Abe allowed the military to use their weapons.
“I don’t think Japan should have a war-fighting image,” he adds. “I like the idea of a neutral Japan.”
That, scoffs Kuni Miyake, a former senior diplomat who has advised Abe on foreign policy, “is daydreaming; the threats are there.”
But in a country where consensus is king, he points out, “the best approach is slow and gradual policy change.
“Abe is not trying to change Japan overnight,” he adds, “but a door is being opened now. We will see a new chapter, but it won’t be the last chapter. This will be a long, long process.”