It is time the world saw Japan as a normal country

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

On its 50th anniversary last month, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic party announced a draft amendment to Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. As much as any armistice or peace treaty in the wake of the second world war, the draft amendment – finally – signals the end to that war.

The controversial article is the post-war, American-imposed constraint on Japan to “forever renounce war as a sovereign right” and eschew the use or threat of using force “as a means of settling international disputes”.

The change would reiterate Japan’s commitment to peace while recognising that military force may at times be necessary to maintain it. The amendment would allow Japan’s military to assist allied militaries, help with armed international peacekeeping operations and, potentially, engage in collective security arrangements. If adopted, the change would signal that Japan has finally become, 60 years after the war, a “normal country” when it comes to defence matters.

Because of the war, however, the decision to drop formal pacifism from the constitution will inevitably resonate in neighbouring countries. Their anxieties so far have not been allayed by the visits of Japan’s prime minister and others to the Yasukuni Shrine to honour the war dead.

Nevertheless, concern that this change reflects a resurrected Japanese hyper-nationalism is overstated. First, it ignores Japan’s own cultural imperative of honouring one’s ancestors. Second, and more to the point, it ignores the half-century of peaceful and increasingly responsible Japanese behaviour on the world stage. A key turning point occurred in the aftermath of the first Gulf war, when Japan could only help pay for the US-led coalition effort against Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait. Japan, the world’s second largest economy, was obviously embarrassed that it was on the sideline writing cheques. But being embarrassed was a sign of Japan’s own civic health, reflecting the simple but important notion that with power and wealth come responsibilities.

Since then, Japan has taken on various United Nations peacekeeping roles. More recently, its military has helped US-led operations in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Finally, in co-ordination with US, Indian and Australian militaries, Japanese forces took on a big relief role in South Asia in response to the devastating 2004 tsunamis.

The LDP’s push to change the constitution is not all about acting as a good neighbour or even ally. The Japanese live in an increasingly tough region, in which North Korea builds nuclear weapons and launches missiles over Japanese territory, while China annually pours double-digit spending increases into its military forces and occasionally sends naval ships into Japan’s waters and jet fighters into its airspace. Moreover, Japan’s leaders recognise that a military confrontation in the Strait of Taiwan would affect Japan’s security, possibly even involving Japan in the conflict itself.

But whatever the reason for the change, what is important to understand is how the Japanese are actually carrying out this new role. The Japanese have increasingly tied their security to their alliance with the US. In turn, Washington is moving slowly but surely to tie together America’s democratic friends in Asia. This is not a Japan off on its own but a Japan that sees its role on the world stage as tied to and legitimised by its association with other democratic powers.

Nor can it be argued, as before, that Japan’s liberalism is superficial. The September elections gave Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister, a clear mandate to transform Japan’s traditional, opaque political and economic systems. With popular support for those changes at home and an amended constitution for its role abroad, Mr Koizumi and his political allies have put Japan on an unprecedented – and liberal – path.

Asked recently about his country’s future, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s new cabinet secretary and possibly Mr Koizumi’s successor, said he wanted to see a Japan that promotes democracy in the world and a Japan where “people in other parts of the world would like to live” and “become citizens”.

This is not your grandfather’s Japan. And the best thing Japan’s friends can do is support the country’s efforts to play a bigger role on the world stage – including its bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The second world war ended more than a half-century ago. Japan should never ignore that side of its history but, in turn, we should recognise what Japan has become. The war is over.

The writer is director of strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.