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Lessons from the Japanese Sword

Aug 05 , 2015

On July 16 in Tokyo, the House of Representatives, or the lower house of the Japanese Diet, approved the unpopular security bills, which would allow Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense and expand the role for its Self-Defense Forces in overseas military operations. About three months ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised, at a joint meeting of the US Congress, to achieve the legislative foundations for the security bills by this coming summer, so as to make “the cooperation between the US military and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces even stronger”. Abe now has honored his promise, and accomplished this “unprecedented reform in post-war history.” The United States, which has been encouraging Japan to drop the ban on the right to collective self-defense and to shoulder greater security obligations, can be expected to support and welcome the new security legislation.

Abe solemnly pledged that the change could further consolidate the Japan-US alliance and would be a move towards the future. Does this tally with the reality? Or could it be possible for Japan, after being lifted out of the status as a defeated belligerent and achieving a greater military role, to shoulder greater obligations in the US’ global military operations as the United States has expected? Could the change, which was based on the excuses of China’s military non-transparency and maritime security, help the US accomplish the goal of its Asia-Pacific re-balance strategy and help offer greater guarantee for regional peace? There are no definite answers to these questions, but it is certain that the change would bring greater uncertainty to the Japan-US relations.

First, from the perspective of the Japan-US alliance, the forced passage of the security bills by the Abe administration not only led to serious confrontation between the ruling and opposition members within the Diet, but also triggered massive protests across the country. On July 10, about 100,000 people took to the street in a rally to protest against the security legislation. It seems that while people staged the protests against Abe, they actually intended to show discontent about the United States. During the process of the legislation, the Abe administration frequently mentioned the US and its needs and interests, hoping to use external pressure from the US to offset strong opposition inside Japan. For the Japanese nationals, who have enjoyed peace for 70 years after the war, they knew that Tokyo, or the Abe administration, could not have succeeded in enacting the bills without endorsement and support from Washington. Therefore, they believed the United States was the behind-the-scenes manipulator that instigated Abe to drag Japan to risks of wars. After the September 11 terror attacks, the United States had launched two wars, and the Japanese public were wary of the US pressure. Protests erupted across the country because people feared the security bills would plunge Japan into wars launched by the US, and such opposition reflected, to some extent, a new “victim” mentality. With historical issues such as the US military base in Okinawa and the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki now emerging again as hot topics among the Japanese public, protests in Okinawa became widespread, and the recounting and reflection of the bitter memories of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings by the Japanese media also rekindled resentment and hatred towards the US among the general public. On the occasions of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the approval of the new security bills, the sentiment, coupled with growing discontent, has developed into a new anti-US wave, which transcends the boundaries between the rightists and the leftists. In the eyes of the Japanese realists, the Abe policy, which is now considered to be subordinated to the US, is in essence meant to seek independence in the future. Therefore, the spreading and growing anti-US sentiment would generate a kind of reverse compelling effect in the future US-Japan relations, and this is probably the real intention of Abe.


Second, the pledge on security obligations, which the US has won by taking the blame on behalf of Abe and playing a scapegoat, could likely become nothing but lip services or a “rubber check”. The biggest expectation of the US in the revisions to the Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation is to have Japan share US security costs in East Asia or even worldwide. Judging from various restrictions on overseas military deployments, however, Japan could hardly become the strategic cooperation ally that the US is expecting it to be. In the history of the post-WWII US-Japan alliance, from the Korea War and the Vietnam War to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars this century, Japan has always been active in words and slow in action. It always promised active assistance to the US, but in reality, it either made a fortune from the wars or did not want to pay any substantial costs. Due to these lessons, the US finally resorted to the form of law and treaty to coerce Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense and to assume its obligations. The US, however, should know that Japan is a country that is good at playing on words. After the Japanese leaders accomplished their long-cherished goal of freeing shackles on the military, it would be highly possible that they would again try to dodge obligations on the excuse of restrictions set by the “pacifist constitution”. A recent event in Japan is worth a second thought by the US. In order to cut costs, the Japanese government announced to abandon its pledge on the construction of the main Tokyo stadium it began in 2013 during its bid for the Olympic Games. Any pledge made by Japan for the international community is based on its own realistic benefits, and whenever it could not get the benefit, Japan could refuse to honor its pledge by resorting to whatever excuse — fiscal deficit or opposition from the general public.

Furthermore, as far as the United States and Japan are concerned, it’s hard and too early to say who will be the manipulator or who will be manipulated in the international arena. According to the Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation revised in April, the US-Japan integration process will be accelerated in the future. If the process gets Japan actively involved in intervening in issues such as the South China Sea and Taiwan, it would inevitably add fuel to already tense relations between China and Japan, and such growing tensions would subsequently and naturally catch the US in a dilemma between defending its alliance relations with Japan and maintaining regional peace. Then, it is hard to tell if Japan becomes a card plated by the US in containing China or if Japan is a gainer from China-US square-offs. The reason is simple: the Japanese have always harbored ambitions of becoming a global leader, and will never be willing to merely serve as a puppet of the US. US media organizations, including the New York Times and Washington Post, have published editorials and commentaries on this topic, all believing that if the US unconditionally supports Abe on the issue of security bills, it will ultimately hurt the interests of the United States. Fareed Zakaria, a well-known CNN host, also urged the US government to hear opinions from the men of insight in his July 26 program.

Ruth Benedict, in her masterpiece The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, analyzed the dual nature of the Japanese — their gentleness and cruelty. This is a profound conclusion drawn by the US from the bloody fights with the Japanese during World War II, and the lesson should not be forgotten once the wounds heal. If the US overindulges in the joy of playing with the chrysanthemum, it could soon find its hands are bleeding from the sharp Japanese sword, even without realizing when and how he got wounded.

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