Seventy-one years ago, on August 6, 1945, a U.S. B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing an estimated 140 thousand people. The bombing came at the end of a long and bloody war in which 20 million people or more died in Asia. Soon thereafter, for the first time in its recorded history, Japan found itself occupied by foreign forces, led by the United States.
These momentous events had a transformational impact on Japan and its position in the world. In the pre-1945 era, Japan was a highly militarized society that had come to dominate most of East Asia. After 1945, Japan came to define itself as a “Peace Nation,” one that renounced war and the use of force as an instrument of foreign policy and sought to cultivate peaceful relations with its neighbors. Trade and diplomacy, rather than battleships and bayonets, came to characterize Japan’s relations with the outside world. Hiroshima played a critical symbolic role in this new narrative, showing the world the unacceptable horrors that modern military technology could inflict.
Of course, even if Japan had wanted to do so, it could not ignore national security issues entirely. With the onset of the Cold War, Japan – with the strong encouragement of the United States – created a relatively small, but highly capable military force, the Japanese Self Defense Force (JSDF), and entered into military alliance with the United States based on the Mutual Security Treaty of 1951.
Yet, the new Japanese military was tightly constrained in the types of missions and weapons it could adopt. Its main purpose was to provide a first line of defense against a direct military attack on Japan. The type of weaponry that it could adopt was limited to those suited to defense. Moreover, the alliance was a highly asymmetrical one. If Japan was attacked, the U.S. promised to come to Japan’s aid, but legally, Japanese forces were not allowed to come to the aid of the United States. They could only defend U.S. forces in Japanese territory. Unlike NATO or in South Korea, there was no joint command structure to coordinate efforts between the U.S. and Japanese militaries. The tension between Japan’s identity as a peace nation and its actual national security policies was real and uncomfortable.
There were good reasons for Japanese reluctance on defense. The Cold War in Asia was in actuality quite hot, and the Japanese people saw little reason to allow themselves to get dragged into bloody conflicts, such as Korea and Vietnam (or latter Iraq). Moreover, the Japanese public distrusted the military and feared that if allowed a greater role, the JSDF might undermine Japan’s post-1945 democratic order and promote overseas adventurism, much as the military had done in the prewar period. While most Japanese could not be accurately called pacifist in outlook – since they did favor defending Japan – they were quite anti-military. For its part, the United States, while it wanted japan to do more on defense, viewed Japan as the indispensable lynchpin in its Cold War strategy of containing the Soviet Union.
This state of affairs came under increasing pressure with the end of the Cold War. With the threat of the old Soviet Union gone, Japan could not be sure that the United States would remain committed to maintaining security in the region. At the same time, new security threats emerged, beginning with the first Gulf War against Iraq and continued turmoil in the Middle East – a region from where Japan imports 90 percent of its oil. Closer to home, Japan was confronted with a nuclearizing North Korea and a Chinese military that was growing at over 20 percent a year.
In response, Japan began to cautiously adjust its security strategy, allowing the JSDF to go on UN peace keeping missions abroad and to provide logistical support to U.S. forces and other allied forces during the war in Afghanistan. In recent years, this expansion in the alliance has been greatly accelerated in as Japan found itself embroiled in a bitter dispute with China over the Senkaku islands (called Diaoyu by the Chinese), a group of small, uninhabited but symbolically important islands strategically located between Taiwan and Okinawa. Since 2012, China has been sending ships and planes regularly into the waters around those islands, challenging Japan’s control. While so far an outright military confrontation has been averted, the risk of an inadvertent incident and escalation looms large. Many Japanese strategists worry that as the 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 islands, creating a fait compli as it has in the South China Seas. In the meantime, North Korea continues to test nuclear warheads and may be at the point where it could place a miniaturized warhead on a missile capable of striking Tokyo.
It is against this backdrop that the Abe administration has moved to further strengthen its armed forces and the alliance. For the first time in years, defense spending is up. The JSDF is now allowed to come to the defense of U.S. forces if they are attacked, even if Japan is not attacked first. Japan is expanding its defense ties to include countries like Australia and India. And an enhanced, Alliance coordinating mechanism has been created that in times of emergency may serve as something close to a joint command structure.
The Japanese public continues to be ambivalent about expanding its military role. Poll after poll shows that the top priority for most Japanese are things such as reviving economic growth and shoring up the social welfare system. Nonetheless, survey data also shows that there is increased distrust of China and fear of an attack upon Japan. While the Japanese people may not be interested in military adventures, they do not wish to be the target of Chinese bullying, much less North Korean blackmail or missile strikes. Unlike the Cold War, Japan today is at the front lines of a potential conflict and must find new ways of defending itself.
Obama’s visit to Hiroshima takes on added significance in this context. The visit’s primary goals are to reaffirm the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance and to tap the symbolic capital of Hiroshima to rally support for nuclear non-proliferation. The trip also may prove useful at the time when Japan is compelled to redefine its position in the world. By linking the U.S.-Japan alliance to the larger goal of nuclear disarmament, the visit may help the Japanese people to find a way of resolving the tension between their pacifist/anti-military ideals and their national security policies. By coming full circle – back to where the War in the Pacific was ended and Japan’s post-1945 approach to security began – we can hope that the President can help usher Japan into a new world.