COMMENT: The Resurrection of Japanese Normalization

ImageCOUNCILLOR’S COMMENT: Was it ever dead – A follow up to: The Resurrection of Shinzo Abe. For decades, Japan’s unique constitutional conundrum has occupied academics and policy makers alike. At the core of this issue is that of Article 9, a clause which prohibits the use of force by Japan and forbids the maintenance of land, sea and air forces.

Fundamentally, a dichotomy exists between the original spirit of the constitution and the reality of Japan’s military capability today. The Japan Self Defence Forces (JSDF) is a representation of the progress Japan has made by reinterpretation of the constitution, the process of which is now widely touted as ‘normalisation.’

As China continues to develop its naval capability, the Korean peninsula remains a flashpoint and access to sea lanes – complicated by various territorial claims in the region – undergoes a rebalancing though what is emerging as a naval arms race. Japan’s dependency on imports for energy/resources and exports for growth reinforces the need to protect its maritime interests. Not only was this relationship witnessed during the imperial attempt at creating the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere during the Second World War, commentators also predicted the return of a powerful Japanese navy during the bubble years of the Japanese economy. The argument was that it was only natural Japanese economic growth would be commensurate with military growth. When the bubble popped, the popular concern went with it, even if Japan’s navy was in fact moving towards being one of the most sophisticated in the world.

Since then, the debate has come and gone. Periods of hawkishness by lawmakers, fallout between Japan and its neighbours and mountains of editorial and academic attention follow, only to make way for the next issue du jour. Despite seemingly erratic international attention, the issue of constitutional reform will always maintain a place in Tokyo, where the sheer long term strategic importance of Japan’s ability to defend itself and protect its interests regionally and abroad is crucial. So crucial in fact, a way to reinterpret the constitution and allow for the expansion of JSDF capability was needed, the idea was normalization, and it has been deployed effectively amongst a population that traditionally, post-war, has a strong pacifist ideal. Today, the population is at the very least is split on the issue, but momentum towards reform is undoubtedly growing yet again.

The demographic split is one of the obstacles to dramatic reform, the kind Prime Minister Shinzo Abe campaigned on. To amend the constitution, a super majority, i.e. two thirds on both houses of the Diet, and a majority verdict in a national referendum is needed to make such changes. Sentiment has swayed towards reform in light of the rise of China and more recently, the Algerian hostage tragedy where more than 10 Japanese nationals died. The latter has given impetus to push forward on a law on allowing Japanese forces to deploy to areas and guarantee the safety of Japanese nationals abroad, whereas before, the security of the JSDF was needed before deployment.

Japan’s normalization therefore is re-entering an era of acceleration. The last instance of this was in response to international (especially US) criticism of Japan’s ‘chequebook diplomacy’ in the Gulf War. Pressure to share the burden of Japanese security, following the Yoshida doctrine of ‘economy first’ (and leaving defence to the US) has therefore coincided with heightened regional and domestic impetus to reform. The contemporary context has paved the way for the re-entry of the conservative LDP, though obstacles will remain. Japan must balance its relationship in the region, especially its trade relationship with China. So too must Japan find a way to finance the huge amount of debt and demographic challenges – like its aging population. Finally, public sentiment must form a majority and be sustained – a task made difficult by what is a revolving door of Prime Ministers and cabinets.

Shinzo Abe’s second run as Prime Minister is perhaps the best chance in recent memory for Japan to formally ‘normalize’. Although it can appear to come in waves, resulting in minor skirting of the constitution, over the years and as a whole, ‘normalization’ has resulted in a formidable and sophisticated defence force due to the consistent recognition in Tokyo of the strategic imperative of guaranteeing Japan’s ability to defend itself and its interests abroad in the face of inherent geopolitical challenges.

This piece was contributed by William Hobart, Councillor AIIA NSW.


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