No, Abe's Japan isn't a threat
(CNN) — The anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, which falls today, has increased the focus on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with many wondering how he will commemorate the event. Such attention is not new. Since becoming premier in December, the dominate narrative is that Abe, a nationalist who is jerking Japan dangerously to the right, is pursuing an agenda that will result in relaxed rules on Japan's military, thereby destroying the pacifist principles embedded in its constitution and angering those countries Japan invaded or colonized during World War II. Now that Abe's party and his allies control both houses of parliament, Abe is free to reveal his true self and unleash this agenda.
But this is a simplistic caricature of Abe and his policy agenda.
Whether it is Abe's desire to revise and reinterpret Japan's constitution or make changes to Japan's military, his actions are consistently interpreted as leading Japan away from its postwar pacifism. In fact, while Abe is pursuing several significant changes in Japan, the truth of his agenda is often distorted or completely lost by the nationalist narrative. While Abe's personal views on Japan's role in World War II are questionable, the policies he is pursuing do not lead to the militaristic slippery slope his critics fear.
Consider first the hype surrounding Abe's desire to revise the constitution and reinterpret it. The latter involves the right to collective self-defense. Japan has this right based on Article 51 of the U.N. Charter but has interpreted its constitution as not being able to exercise this right. Abe wants to reinterpret it so that Japan can do so. On constitutional revision, while there are a host of articles Abe wants to revise, most attention has been on his desire to revise Article 9, which states that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes" and in order to accomplish this, war potential will never be maintained.
The consequences of both changes are often interpreted as scrapping pacifist restrictions, leading Japan toward a full-fledged, assertive military. Yet, this is simply not true. With constitutional revision, Abe seeks to change the name of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to National Defense Forces (NDF) and stipulate the existence of this NDF in the constitution, thereby providing it a legal basis. Although the NDF would be tasked with defending Japanese territory from attack and participating in international peacekeeping operations, the stipulations renouncing war and abjuring threat or use of military force to resolve disputes would remain.
Abe's plan to reinterpret the constitution to allow for the exercise of collective self-defense is also overhyped. Under the current interpretation, Japan cannot aid its American ally if it comes under attack, yet the U.S. is tasked with defending Japan. This inequality has long been a source of frustration. Abe's reinterpretation would enable Japanese forces to aid U.S. forces under attack, say from a North Korean missile in the East China Sea or Sea of Japan. Additionally, it would enable Japan to shoot down a missile heading to the U.S. and come to the aid of foreign troops under attack during U.N. peacekeeping operations. Yet Japan would remain legally confined to reacting instead of acting. Importantly, the reinterpretation does not permit Japan to assume a more active military role in regional security.
Over-reaction is also found in discussions of capabilities. Whether it is drones, helicopter destroyers, or amphibious capabilities, these acquisitions are often described as offensive. But the drones Japan seeks are not offensive and will not carry weapons -- they simply provide eyes in the sky for Japan's vast maritime domain. Similarly, the new 27,000 ton, 248-meter Izumo helicopter destroyer is not really an aircraft carrier, despite looking like one. It lacks catapults or other means of launching fixed-wing aircraft and its aft elevator is located in the middle of the deck. Along with lacking a carrier battle group, the ship is an ill fit for taking offensive operations. Instead, the ship is limited to missions to conduct surveillance of submarines or deliver supplies to disaster struck areas. When it comes to amphibious capabilities, while storming islands from the sea seems offensive leaning in generic terms, Japan's focus is on retaking their own islands from a potential aggressor given that the majority of its southwestern archipelago is unprotected.
Even reports on discussions of acquiring a cruise missile or other weapons that could be used to launch a strike against a North Korean missile base before a launch are misconstrued. Acquiring such long-range capabilities would represent a symbolic step away from Japan's current posture, but officials have stated they would only be used if Japan was attacked first by another missile.
The hype is amplified by a tendency to frame Abe's agenda as risky because it will isolate Japan. The evidence for this, though, is hard to find. Rather than being seen as an increasingly dangerous country on the cusp of remilitarization, all regional countries, apart from China and South Korea, have welcomed Abe's desire to forge closer relations. Indeed, a 2012 BBC World Service poll found Japan was seen as having the most positive influence in the world. Quite frankly, China and South Korea remain regional anomalies. Japan is anything but isolated as many countries look to it as a crucial economic, technological, aid, and increasingly security partner.
Most importantly, though, the motivation behind these changes is too often lost amidst a focus on Abe's personal beliefs and views on history. Abe is often described as a hawkish nationalist who is now free to reveal his true self. But these descriptions create a false caricature of Abe, conjuring up memories of 1930's revanchist Japan expanding throughout Asia. While it is hard to deny that Abe's personal beliefs or views on history differ from those of his neighbors and probably most Westerners, since becoming premier Abe has kept these beliefs to himself. He has refrained from visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and employing provocative rhetoric towards his neighbors, even calling Vice Premier Taro Aso to task after he made an appalling comment on what Japan can learn from Nazi Germany. Most importantly, he maintains Japan's official apologies on the war and comfort women despite fears he would dilute these statements.
With a nuclear North Korea capable and willing to launch missiles over Japan, a Chinese military growing more assertive as its power increases, and a Russia intent on modernizing its Pacific Fleet, Japan sits in a dangerous neighborhood. All these countries have intruded into Japanese waters and/or airspace in the past. China, in particular, has stepped up its intrusions dramatically in the past year. The actions taken by Abe are therefore not needless provocations or attempts to gain a more assertive role in the region. They are changes meant to bolster Japan's defense and ability to protect itself against these growing threats. Yet, because of Abe's personal beliefs, the message of these motivations is often lost because Abe is the messenger.
Ultimately, the changes Abe seeks are not going to raise Japan's military profile, lead Japan down a path of a more assertive military, or jerk Japan to the right. Believing so demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Japan. The changes Abe is seeking are essential to defend Japan in today's Asia. Despite nearly seventy years since the end of World War II and an increasingly hostile environment, the changes Abe is pursuing are impressive in that they are not consequential in terms of Japan's grand strategy. Japan's military will continue to be defense-oriented. What is new is the method of securing that defense. Sadly, Abe's personal views on history mean that the narrative of Japan's military revival will be what continues to dominate international headlines.