A Japanese academic, sometime diplomat and policy adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently argued that Japan would not return to militarism as his nation seeks to forge a new defense posture and to make the US-Japan alliance more effective.
Addressing the East-West Center in Honolulu, Shinichi Kitaoka said: “Japan will never become a military power again.”
He contended that this would be “unthinkable” because the reasons Japan went down a militaristic path from 1931 to 1945 no longer existed.
Instead, Kitaoka said Abe’s plans to reinterpret Japan’s constitution to permit collective defense, to establish a national security council and to publish Tokyo’s first national security strategy were intended only to exercise the sovereign right of self-defense.
However, neither Kitaoka, who was Japan’s deputy ambassador to the UN from 2004 to 2006, nor other advisers to the prime minister or drafters of a new US-Japan defense agreement signed earlier this month have confronted two towering obstacles to their plans — one internal, the other external.
Internally, many Japanese — or their parents or grandparents — who recall the misery and devastation that was the consequence of Japan’s militaristic ventures in the past century are skeptical or suspicious of Abe’s call for new defensive measures. That has been compounded by deep-seated pacifism in Japan.
Externally, China and South Korea have fired one barrage after another at Abe and his call for improved Japanese defenses.
Both have demanded that Japan acknowledge its earlier transgressions, but the Chinese have been understated, while the South Koreans have been emotional, bordering on irrational.
Several South Korean legislators have issued a statement reflecting widespread sentiment in the country: “Given no sufficient repentance over its past atrocities and no sufficient compensation for them, Japan seeking to become a military power under the pretext of self-defense would give a deep scar to neighboring countries that suffered from Japan’s past aggression.”
Curiously, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been outspoken in her demand that Tokyo face up to “the history question,” meaning Japan’s 35-year rule of Korea that ended in 1945. Yet her father, former South Korean president Park Chung-hee, was a young officer in the Japanese Imperial Army in Manchuria, then a Japanese colony.
In his remarks, Kitaoka said Japan embarked on conquests in the past century to expand its markets and because it perceived its enemies as weak. He said the international community lacked punitive sanctions and Japan’s political leaders could not control its military forces. The lack of free speech in the country was another contributing factor.
Kitaoka, who sits on several panels advising Abe, contended that those factors “do not apply to today’s Japan.”
Instead, the Abe government would have a national security council in place and a new outline of defense planning adopted by the end of this year, he said.
Kitaoka pointed to China as a counterexample, saying that Beijing has been moving down the same road as Japan — only earlier — as it escalates its maritime actions and seems confident that Chinese forces could prevail in Asia.
He argued that China has no fear of international sanctions and is using its economic power to silence critics in other nations.
Moreover, he questioned the capacity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to control the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, which encompasses all of the country’s military forces. US officers with access to intelligence reports have raised similar questions.
Kitaoka said it is also difficult for Chinese to speak out against their government.
Meanwhile, Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida and Japanese Minister of Defense Itsunori Onoder issued a joint communique with US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in which the US “welcomed Japan’s determination to contribute more proactively to regional and global peace, and security.”
In the most forthright affirmation of the US-Japan alliance seen in years, Washington “reiterated its commitment to collaborate closely with Japan.”
Kerry and Hagel applauded Abe’s plans to assert Japan’s right to collective self-defense, to expand its defense budget and to strengthen the defense of its sovereign territory.
In particular, the officials agreed that the US-Japan defense guidelines — last revised in 1997 — would be brought up to date, given the changes in Asia in recent years, notably the emergence of Chinese power and the threat of nuclear attack by North Korea.
In sum, Japan and the US agreed on where they want to go, but not on how to get there, faced with the vehement objections of some Japanese and many people in China and South Korea.
Richard Halloran is a commentator based in Hawaii.