Last Friday, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Hiroshima after the city was destroyed by an American atomic bomb on August 6 1945. Although the President did not apologize for the act, he did use the occasion to advocate nuclear nonproliferation, mourning the day when “a flash of light and a wall of fire… demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.”
However, this long-anticipated gesture of goodwill is more than just a platform for the nuclear issue or recognition of a past tragedy. As Japan expands its Self Defense Forces and inches ever closer to revising a 70-year old Constitutional ban on maintaining an offensive military, the President’s visit may also mark a new era in America’s alliance with its most important security partner in East Asia.
The significance of this new era is enhanced by the intimate role that the U.S has played in shaping Japanese military policy. Article 9 itself, the keystone of Japan’s “Peace Constitution,” was written by an American-led drafting committee to address fears that Japan might rise again to threaten U.S. interests. However, after the Korean War began in June 1950, Cold War priorities quickly snuffed out those fears and American policymakers began to pressure the reluctant Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshida Shigeru, to rebuild the country’s armed forces.
In Prime Minister Nobosuke Kishi – Shinzo Abe’s grandfather – the U.S. found a more willing military partner. By 1960, he had negotiated revisions to the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, which offered new base concession to the U.S. and loosened the restrictions on Japanese remilitarization. However, this deal sparked the Anpo Toso “Anti-Security Treaty Struggle,” some of the largest mass protests in Japanese history. The treaty revisions eventually passed, but the protests were so large that President Dwight Eisenhower was forced to cancel his trip to the country. The Kishi government fell soon after, and the issue of security policy became so toxic that, for the next 30 years, it received almost no public mention in Japanese politics.
Today, however, the political tide has clearly turned. Once a token force, the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) have quietly developed into a sizable military over the past two decades. Since Abe returned to office in 2012, that expansion has accelerated quickly. In 2013, the Abe government increased Japan’s military budget for the first time in 11 years – by 0.7 percent to $46 billion. Purchase orders for weapons systems like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the V-22 Osprey, previously considered too offense-oriented to be legal, have upgraded the JSDF’s operational capability. And the reversal of a ban on military exports in 2014 has fueled a burgeoning Japanese defense industry.
Most importantly, the Abe government has energetically expanded interpretations of Article 9 to bypass Constitutional limits on security policy. In December 2013, the Abe government published Japan’s first National Security Strategy and created an executive body similar to the U.S. National Security Council. In April 2015, Tokyo signed a new bilateral security agreement with the U.S. called the Joint Defense Guidelines, which expanded Japan’s role in the alliance and, in March of this year, the government expanded the interpretation of Article 9 to include the concept of “Collective Self-Defense,” allowing the JSDF to aid foreign allies. Although efforts to revise Article 9 itself have slowed in the face of public and political opposition, these reforms have met with far less resistance than they would have less than ten years ago. How to explain this national change of heart?
For one thing, the strength of the Japanese peace movement, which arose out of the Anpo Toso protests, rested on three main pillars: painful personal memories of World War II, resentment over the proliferation of U.S. bases in Japan, and widespread opposition to nuclear weapons. These issues are no longer so relevant today. Members of the war generation have begun to die off, the so-called “Realignment of Force Posture in Japan” has reduced the visibility of American forces in the country, and the U.S. no longer tests nuclear weapons in the Pacific – a practice that was extremely unpopular in Japan.
However, the real elephant in the room is China. Although polling indicates that the Japanese public remains generally opposed to military expansion, only seven percent of Japanese have a favorable view of their western neighbor. As Beijing pours money into defense – albeit at lower levels than past years – and tensions continue to simmer over the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu islands, many Japanese feel that a purely defensive military may not be enough to keep their country secure. Of course, there are dangers to this path. Professor at the Pardee School of International Relations and Cipher Brief expert Thomas Berger writes that “many Japanese strategists worry that as the [military] balance of power continues to shift, Beijing may be tempted to take more direct action, such as landing ‘patriotic fishermen’ or even military personnel on the [Senkaku] islands.”
For the United States, Japan’s return to military normality represents an opportunity. First, in operational terms, greater flexibility for the JSDF has allowed Japanese forces to deploy troops abroad and engage more actively in U.S.-led training exercises and strengthen their joint command capabilities. Second, writes Associate Director of the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy and Cipher Brief expert Scott Harold, Japan’s security reforms are “empowering it to play a more active role in shaping the regional Indo-Asia-Pacific security environment in ways that are stability-enhancing.” At the end of the day, after 71 years, Tokyo feels ready to return to normality. President Obama’s trip has helped further salve painful legacies of war and occupation while enhancing Japan’s new era of security relations with the U.S.
Fritz Lodge is an International Producer with The Cipher Brief.