Tokyo Report

Is Japan Leaving Pacifism Behind?

Recent Features

Tokyo Report | Security | East Asia

Is Japan Leaving Pacifism Behind?

Although with deep hesitation, the country as a whole is beginning to reconfigure the meaning of pacifism.

Is Japan Leaving Pacifism Behind?
Credit: Pixabay

Japanese post-war pacifism reached its pinnacle in 1976. That year, the Miki Takeo administration adopted two measures representing the tide of the moment: a 1 percent cap on the annual defense budget per GNP, and a de facto ban on arms exports that applied to both allies and enemies alike. For a long time, both policies were considered a “national credo,” and were fully embraced by major politicians with distinct pride. 

This sense of pride was reflected in the 1976 remarks of Foreign Minister Miyazawa Kiichi, who was then considered a mainstream conservative. Responding to a question from an opposition party member regarding his views on the arms trade during Diet deliberation, Miyazawa concluded his remarks in the following way:

We should be reluctant to consider whether or not our country will participate in such a project [arms sales]. Even if we can earn some foreign currency surplus, our country has not come to ruin so far as to make money by exporting weapons, and we should continue to do so as a country with higher ideals. There is nothing we cannot discuss about what is a weapon and what is not a weapon, but I think we should be reluctant to approach the questionable limit.

Reflecting upon Miyazawa’s comments, one may see hubris in implicating nations that export arms as being in “ruin” and holding lesser ideals. However, for people like Miyazawa who experienced war on the homefront during their formative years, it was a moral imperative to resist a slippery slope that might lead to the revival of militarism in some shape or form. 

Also, at the time, Japanese policymakers believed that focusing their attention on economic development, rather than military affairs, was the best course of action. Their decision was bearing fruit; in 1968 Japan became the second-largest economy in the world, and its economic pie was continuing to grow as it entered the tumultuous 1970s.

Although Miyazawa passed away 17 years ago, it would be interesting to hear his opinion on how Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, his distant relative and successor to the faction – now defunct – that Miyazawa once presided over, altered the policies that his generation held dear. Almost all the defense budgets that Kishida has passed have exceeded the 1 percent cap, and his government openly aims for defense spending to reach 2 percent of GDP. Furthermore, Kishida is aiming to loosen the restrictions on arms exports, which his critics argue would force Japan to become a “merchant of death” – a description Miyazawa might also have been inclined to use. 

A precedent was set last year when the Kishida administration revised the rules for arms exports, which for the first time opened up the path for Japan to export lethal arms to countries from which it acquired licensing permits. From the Japanese government’s point of view, the revision was needed to assist the United States’ ongoing effort to arm Ukraine. To help backfill Ukraine’s depleting missile stock, Japan announced that they would provide Patriot missiles to the U.S. – missiles manufactured in Japan, based on the permission of U.S. manufacturers. That in theory would allow the United States to continue to support Ukraine while maintaining enough missile stock to contend with other crises.

Recently, domestic opposition spiked when faced with the possibility of another exception on the lethal arms embargo.

Kishida’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) wanted to pave the way for its forthcoming next-generation fighter jet – a joint project undertaken with Italy and the United Kingdom – to be exported to nations that are not involved in the manufacturing process. Just a few weeks ago, the LDP’s coalition partner, the Komeito Party, was showing opposition to the change. However, after Kishida clarified his stance on the fighter exports, they flipped their initial stance. 

In his explanation, Kishida emphasized that the approval for arms exports to third countries would only apply to the fighter jets, and even then the fighters would only be exported to non-combatant nations. Also, Kishida emphasized that every decision on whether to export fighter jets should be supported by unanimous consent from Cabinet members.  

Komeito leaders described Kishida’s explanation as “valid,” “clear and detailed,” and agreed with the LDP on March 15 to greenlight the third-party export of the fighter jets. On Komeito’s official website, they emphasized the need to permit third-party exports in order to advance the co-development of fighter jets, and reiterated the policy change was a matter of “national interest.” 

After successfully receiving approval from his partner, on March 26, Kishida sanctioned a Cabinet decision that made the agreed-upon measure an official policy.

In an interview with Jiji, Tamura Tomoko, who has been newly elected as head of the Japanese Communist Party, quoted Miyazawa’s comments from decades ago and criticized Kishida by saying that he is pushing Japan into “ruin.” However, Japanese pacifists who quote Miyazawa liberally ignore his “realist” side, which they might not fully come to terms with.

Miyazawa was a pacifist in the sense that he insisted that his country should refrain from involving itself in war by sending troops and weapons abroad. Nevertheless, he did not ignore the need to adopt adequate measures to defend his country if faced with immediate danger by a potential foe. 

As tensions began to rise in the region during the 1990s along Cold War dividing lines – particularly the 38th parallel of the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait – Miyazawa, who was prime minister from 1991-1993, experienced a transformation in his worldview. As he rightly foresaw the ramifications of China’s early steps toward becoming an economic and military giant and North Korea’s development of missile capability, he started to adopt stances that would in later years align with those of late Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who is not generally remembered as a pacifist.

One story –  which surfaced in special feature articles published by Asahi Shimbun, based on Miyazawa’s recently unearthed documents – drives home this point. When Miyazawa was invited to be a speaker at an event marking the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco Peace Conference, he stressed the necessity of broadening the constitutional interpretation, which was considered to prohibit Japan from collaborating with the U.S. military absent a direct threat to the Japanese homeland. At the time of Miyazawa’s remarks, the Japanese government’s understanding was that Japan possessed the right of individual self-defense – to protect themselves on their own behalf – but could not exercise collective self-defense that involved military action with a close ally without Japan itself being directly attacked. 

Miyazawa proposed that Japan “recognize the right of collective self-defense as an extension of the right of individual self-defense,” which would allow Japan to undertake operations to defend the U.S. military without any legal obstacles. And this was the exact line of thinking that Abe took when he reinterpreted the constitution in 2014, in order to authorize the “limited” exercise of collective self-defense, that would only allow Japan to join forces with foreign militaries when Japan’s survival is at stake. 

Although Miyazawa, who strongly believed that power should be used judiciously, might have opposed Abe’s means, which revised the interpretation merely by the will of the Cabinet, he would not have disagreed with Abe’s intent — to maximize the security of his country by expanding the definition of self-defense.

Japanese pacifism indeed is reaching a turning point after green-lighting the export of next-generation fighter jets. For people who quote Miyazawa’s moralistic comments on arms exports in 1976, the government’s decision crosses a moral Rubicon. Considering that the public is almost evenly divided on the issue, there is a reluctance to embark into uncharted territories: the export of lethal weapons. 

However, what is equally true is that the Japanese people are increasingly coming to the realization that they are living in an unsettled region and understand the need to step up for their own safety. Although with deep hesitation, the country as a whole is beginning to reconfigure the meaning of pacifism, just as Miyazawa did.