Rising Sun? Japanese Politics and the Shifting Nature of the U.S.-Japan Alliance.

by Adam Campbell

13 November 2019

The United States and Japan: a strained but mutually beneficial relationship (Image credit: The Japan Times)

‘NATO countries must pay MORE, the United States must pay LESS. Very unfair’. @realDonaldTrump (10/07/2018).

Since the beginning of his presidency, the American President Donald J. Trump has consistently stressed that America’s allies have not been pulling their weight in matters of security. He has repeatedly criticised nations for leaving their own national security up to the U.S., politically and financially, and has hinted numerous times at pulling U.S. interests away from these states. With Japan specifically, Trump has had a personal history of viewing them as a ‘free rider’ of American power. A sentiment dating back to the trade wars of the 80s, during which Trump himself stated on the Oprah Winfrey show that ‘we let Japan come in and dump everything into our markets. It’s not free trade‘. In response to this, a resurgence of scepticism over the reliability of U.S. support in East Asian regional security has occurred amongst both the Japanese media and the public.

Despite this uncertainty, the relationship with current Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has been one of Trump’s most positive since his election; not only was Japan the first country in Asia to receive a presidential visit, Abe has repeatedly stated his admiration for Trump, specifically over North Korea, in which Trump has claimed Abe offered to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize. Abe has appeared as a consistent voice of support for Trump’s Asia policy and is now increasingly stating interest in asserting Japan’s independent role in the region. However, Abe has greater reasons for being so attentive to Trump’s more ‘hands-off’ approach to alliances. In fact, it has complemented his most consistent domestic political aim; a reassessment of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution.

Historical Legacy of the Japanese Constitution

Article 9 is perhaps the most notorious passage of the Japanese Constitution. Enshrined within the Constitution that was written by the U.S. forces during the Occupation of Japan following the Second World War, this article states: ‘the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes’. Article 9 cemented the current U.S.- Japanese security relationship, with the U.S. acting as its military guarantor and limiter. Although Japan has possessed a ‘ Japanese Self-Defence Force’ (JSDF) since 1954, under the justification that the clause does not limit the right to self-defence, its status and legal capabilities have long been debated. Much of Abe’s political career has focused on the revision of Article 9, which he argues would remove the ever-present debate over the unconstitutionality of the JSDF and would allow Japan to fully exercise itself as a military power.

With this in mind, Abe is seemingly determined to make a revision of Article 9 his political legacy. Not only has he previously ran office under the banner of economic revival and an increase in defence spending, he has also expanded the term-limits for the post of the Japanese Prime Minister from two consecutive three-year terms to three, a move which resulted in him recently becoming the country’s longest-serving Premier and which drew concerns from Japanese lawmakers. Alongside this, his methods of working towards revision have also drawn criticism. His first attempt came through an amendment proposal in 2012, but after this failed to make it through the Diet, the amendment’s focus shifted towards ‘reinterpreting’ the wording of Article 9 rather than adding or removing anything.

Both Japanese constitutional scholars and former Supreme Court judges publicly denounced this move as unconstitutional, as it seemingly circumvented the legal process for amendment. The amendment aims also attracted widespread opposition by the public, with tens of thousands protesting Abe’s actions in August 2015. This ‘reinterpretation’ has since been described as a ‘Trojan Horse’, designed to avoid controversy while essentially implementing a full revision of Article 9. It is in this context that Abe’s interest and support for Trump makes sense; his emphasis on allies pulling their own weight in terms of security commitments has only boosted Abe’s campaign to revise Article 9, increasing its momentum.

Abe’s determination to revise the Constitution also possesses an ideological root and is part of a broader movement within current Japanese politics. He, and the majority of his current and past cabinets, are members of the ‘Nippon Kaigi’ (the Japanese Conference), an ultranationalist political lobbying group. The association itself focuses on ‘fostering a sense of Japanese unity and social stability, based around the Imperial household and shared history’, along with ‘Contributing to world peace by strengthening national security’. In practice, this movement has mostly taken the form of nostalgia for the Imperial era, including the promotion of a reintroduction of Imperial names, renewing support for the emperor, a dismissal of the Tokyo War tribunals as ‘illegitimate’, and historical revisionism through ‘patriotic education’.

This revisionism has similarly been extended to school textbooks, which have played down Japan’s past aggression in South-East Asia and China, some of which have infamously toned down events like the Nanking massacre. The revisionist mindset has drawn the condemnation of other nations; both China and South Korea have repeatedly criticised numerous former Diet members and Prime Minsters for visiting the Yasukuni Shire, a site which has become infamous for to its continued enshrinement of 1,068 individuals found guilty of war crimes following 1945. Abe himself has recently demonstrated resistance to this criticism, rejecting South Korean demands for an apology for the forced employment of ‘Comfort Women’ during Japan’s occupation of Korea. Beyond their attempts to revise Japan’s actions between 1905 and 1945, ‘Nippon Kaigi’s’ primary goal has been a revision of Article 9, and many of Abe’s supporters view it as a step in allowing Japan to reassert itself within the region as a main player.

A Disjoined ‘Special Relationship’

In light of this growing sentiment towards making Japan ‘great again’, it is easy to see why Abe has taken such an effort to ingratiate himself with Trump. Since 1952, Japanese security has been intrinsically tied to the United States, being a cornerstone of their post Second World War relationship, and relying on it for regional influence. Even during periods of economic tension between the two in the 80s, when Japan was seen as the U.S. main rival and articles warned of an impending ‘economic pearl harbour’, their close security relationship consistently united them over joint concerns in the region. This dynamic has repeated itself recently, as disagreements over trade during the two years of Trump’s office were dwarfed by concerns over North Korea aggression and a potential settlement on the peninsula.

The U.S.-Japanese relationship will persist regardless of what may follow from Trump’s actions in Asia or a change to the Japanese constitution, but its nature may be about to undergo a radical change. If Abe is able to complete his long-held goal of revising the Constitution, it may encourage a renewed interest in increasing Japanese independent involvement in regional security. This, combined with Trump’s current focus on emphasising the necessity of allies to be responsible for their own security, could see Japan acting with more assertion in East Asia, as it attempts to secure its position without clear American support.

Adam Campbell is a current student in MA War Studies. His research interests include current issues in Japanese Security policy, the history of its relations with the U.S following the Second World War, and the history of the Soviet Union.


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