Amidst the debate surrounding Japanese Prime Minister’s Shinzo Abe’s attempt to restore Japan’s defensive capabilities, and expand its military options, is the fear that constitutional amendments paired with the Liberal Democratic Party’s historical revisionism might trigger a rebirth of Japanese militarism has been repeated by commentators and politicians in both China and South Korea.
However, this fear, while understandable (Beijing and Seoul were two of the worst victims of Japanese aggression in the first half of the 20th century) is unfounded. Japanese militarism was buried for good in August 1945 and will not likely rise again given the current political landscape of East Asia.
Militarism – the celebration of force as an effective means of pursuing foreign policy intertwined with a deep admiration for the nation’s military—necessitates a close bond between society and the military and a reverence for military leadership. In fact, any vestige of militarism has dissipated in Japan since Emperor Hirohito’s surrender speech on August 15 1945 and the end of the Japanese Empire.
When Japan surrendered, the Japanese people, unlike Germany, had no Adolf Hitler or Nazi Party to blame for a war that had killed at least 2.7 million Japanese servicemen and civilians and destroyed 66 major cities. The Japanese Emperor was exonerated for the policies and actions of his country in the 1930s and 1940s. The Japanese consequently blamed the “military clique” —primarily the Army rather than the Navy leadership— for deceiving them and drawing the country into a perilous war (damasareta, “to have been deceived”).
This contempt for the military quickly spread to the rank and file of the 3.5 million strong returning former Imperial Japanese Army. Japanese Police reports immediately after the surrender note “grave distrust, frustration, and antipathy toward military and civilian leaders” and general “hatred of the military.” A former soldier upon returning noted: “Not a single person gave me a kind word. Rather, they cast hostile glances my way.” Military uniforms were renamed “defeat suits,” military boots turned into “defeat shoes.”
The meaning of one of the most reverent accolades during the war years “Thanks to our fighting men” (Heitaisan no okage desu) was turned upside down blaming the soldiers for the destruction in life and property and Japan’s overall dire economic and political situation as John W. Dower outlines in Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. Returning soldiers who wanted to differentiate between the military leadership and common servicemen fell on deaf ears.
When the Tokyo trial revealed the Japanese massacres in Manila one mother wrote a letter to the Asahi Shimbun in September 1945 emphasizing that “even if such an atrocious soldier were my son, I could not accept him back home. Let him be shot to death there.” The poet Saeki Jinzaburo wrote a poem expressing his disgust with the army also in response to revelations of Japanese war crimes: “Seizing married women, raping mothers in front of their children – this is the Imperial Army.”
In 1947 a magazine published the following verse: “The crimes of Japanese soldiers, who committed unspeakable atrocities, in Nanking and Manila, must be atoned for.” Former Prime Minister Tojo, an army general, was openly ridiculed for his botched suicide attempt in September 1945, encapsulating the feeling of disgust that a Japanese general was not even capable of taking his own life. “Cowardly living on, and then using a pistol like a foreigner, failing to die. Japanese cannot help but smile bitterly. Why did General Tojo not use a Japanese sword as Army Minister Anami did?”
This distrust and ridicule of all things military never abated in the post-war years as the military was judged incompetent and distrusted (particularly by the left which thought that a military coup was a real possibility well into the 1980s). Surprisingly, a 2015 poll conducted by Japan’s Cabinet Office indicates that 92 percent of surveyed Japanese testified to having a “positive impression” of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), Japan’s de-facto postwar army created at the behest of the United States. However, this apparent support is misleading according to Thomas Berger of Boston University. “Japan’s best and brightest do not flock to join the armed forces, and the JSDF is hardly celebrated in Japanese society.”
Its societal status in comparison to other public institutions and the private sector remains low. According to the above-cited 2015 public opinion poll, less than half of people questioned (47.4 percent; 46.3 percent in 2012) thought that being a soldier was a respectable occupation, and only 25.4 percent perceived the job to be demanding.
Japan simply lacks a military tradition that enshrines the soldierly profession à la Band of Brothers in the United States. The Japanese equivalent to the “Greatest Generation” is the “Betrayed Generation.” Textbooks after the war were systematically purged of any references to past Japanese victories and military heroes and to this day have never been reintroduced.
After the war, the SDF was consequently accepted but the public overall proved indifferent towards the military or were openly hostile to it. New recruits occasionally were pelted with stones on the street in the 1960s, and when they attended movie theaters people would get up and leave.
Indeed, even throughout the Cold War, for many Japanese, Japan’s military served no real purpose given that it possessed no nuclear weapons – the key weapon system guaranteeing deterrence and hence peace until the end of the East-West conflict. Then and now, the public thought that Japan was first and foremost protected by the U.S.-Japan security treaty and not by the SDF.
And while the end of the Cold War finally brought a new dimension to the SDF’s raison d’etre – U.N. Peacekeeping Operations (PKO) — the Japanese have identified the primary duty of the SDF to be a disaster relief force rather than a military that is meant to fight wars.
According to the 2015 public opinion poll conducted by Japan’s Cabinet Office, 81.9 percent of Japanese think that the primary reason for the existence of the SDF is disaster relief dispatch and 72.3 percent believe that this should remain so in the future.
Ever since their founding, Japan’s Self Defense Forces have neither achieved a single military victory nor were they ever engaged in combat operations. To this day, weapons in the SDF are referred to as “equipment,” and artillery brigades are called “technical brigades” in order to downplay the military aspects of Japan’s armed forces. (Tanks used to be called “special vehicles” but are now referred to as tanks again.)
The SDF heavily recruits from the fringe rural territories of Japan such as southern Kyuhsu and northern Hokaido, where young people face limited job prospects. Once they join, they tend to serve until retirement in their early 50s. “Japan doesn’t have the sort of “hero-worship” of things military that can boost the career of a retired officer, according to Robert Dujarric of Temple University, Japan.
The 2015 poll indicates that even in the event of a wartime invasion only 6.8 percent of people surveyed would join the SDF to fight the invaders (despite 75.5 percent believing that Japan is at risk of becoming involved in a war).
Countries such as South Korea and China need to understand that the moral and military defeat of the Japanese military in World War II was so total that it echoes to this day. Japanese military radicalization could only be triggered by a fundamental change in the security architecture of East Asia caused by either a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from Japan or a North Korean nuclear missile attack – both farfetched scenarios.
Perhaps, given their own histories, Beiing and Seoul have difficulty grasping that its political culture and citizenry would not revere its military forces since their respective nations’ identities are intrinsically linked to their armed forces.
The People’s Liberation Army and the Republic of Korea Armed Forces were the essential foundations of both countries — a part of the countries’ founding myths — and consequently from a historical perspective enjoy much higher prestige than will ever be the case with Japan’s SDF.
Despite the historical revisionism and fear mongering of Shinzo Abe’s faction, the Japanese public appears unwilling to trust another “military clique” and engage in adulations of its military leadership and the military; the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still smolder in the Japanese soul.
While some Japanese have difficulty acknowledging what their armies perpetrated against Asian neighbors, they are keenly aware of the ruin Japanese militarism visited upon Japan during the 1930s and 1940s, and this is a lesson they will not forget anytime soon.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Foreign Affairs.