When Takeshi Ishida was drafted into the Japanese military in 1943, he believed he was fighting a just war to liberate Asia from Western colonialism. It was only after taking part in daily exercises in which he was trained to kill that Ishida began to question Japanese militarism.
When the full horror of Japan’s wartime atrocities became apparent in the aftermath of its surrender, Ishida devoted himself to defending the pacifist constitution imposed on the country by victorious US occupation authorities.
Now, the former Imperial Japanese Army officer is consumed with fear that young Japanese will again be sent to fight overseas, following the most dramatic shift in the country’s defense policy for almost 70 years.
On Tuesday, conservative Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet agreed to lift the longstanding ban on Japan’s troops engaging in combat overseas, a move Ishida believes could once again drag his country into a reckless war.
“What Abe is doing is destroying the principles of our pacifist constitution,” Ishida, a professor emeritus at Tokyo University, told The Guardian. “Not killing anyone abroad is, in a sense, a precious part of our heritage. Why should we have to throw it away on the orders of one man rather than through the will of the people?”
Ishida, 91, believes that Japan’s US-authored constitution is at the heart of its postwar peace.
“I came to realize that I had been indoctrinated to become a militaristic youth,” he said. “As someone who felt for a while that he had lost his identity, the peace constitution was a great encouragement.”
That tradition of pacifism is in danger of being abandoned as Abe moves to reinterpret the constitution and lift the self-imposed ban on collective defense, or coming to the aid of an ally under attack.
Japan will not attempt to revise its constitution outright — an option Abe apparently abandoned after accepting that he would not win the necessary majorities in parliament and in a nationwide referendum — but will reinterpret the “pacifist” Article 9, which prohibits the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.
The change, which is expected to be approved by parliament — where Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner hold majorities — would allow Tokyo to exercise collective self-defense for the first time since the end of World War II.
In practical terms, armed troops could take part in UN peacekeeping operations or be dispatched to “gray zone” emergencies that have not developed into full-blown conflict.
Critics say the most troubling aspect of all is that the Japanese military could come to the aid of an ally, leaving open the possibility that Tokyo could be dragged into war at Washington’s behest.
Abe has made building a better equipped, more robust military a cornerstone of his second term as prime minister. As a prominent figure among conservative politicians who want to change the country’s view of its wartime record, he says the current constitution compromises Japan’s ability to defend itself and its allies amid Chinese military aggression and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
In a televised address on Tuesday, Abe said Japan would remain a pacifist state and denied that the new policy would mean sending troops into combat zones. Instead, he said it would offer better protection to Japanese. The country’s navy, for example, would be able to help protect US warships that were fighting to defend the country, he said.