- Contesting Peace:Why Japan needs a real debate on pacifism
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Postwar Japan suffers from a debilitating intellectual paralysis because peace is considered a natural, uncontested condition. The suggestion that pacifism is a hindrance might strike some people as odd—even obscene—but Japan’s quasi-religious belief in peace has prevented it from coming to terms with its wartime past and pushing back against the virulent nationalism of the country’s conservative government. [End Page 12]
Japanese pacifism draws much of its moral strength from Article 9 of the postwar constitution, which renounces “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” In spite of, or rather because of, such an institutionally guaranteed peace, postwar Japan has not been forced to grapple with the practical challenges of what it means to ensure regional tranquility. So long as the Cold War U.S.-Japan security alliance remains in place, Japan can avoid answering such unsettling questions.
With more than 80 percent of Japan’s population having grown up in peacetime, war is a remote notion. But just as curiously remote is the kind of peace that needs to be deliberated on or even fought for. Changing conditions—primarily in the forms of ascending China and nuclear North Korea—should make it necessary for Japan to examine what kind of peace it wants and how best to achieve it. The Japanese need to be asking themselves: “Should we alter our peace constitution to better preserve peace? How active should Japan’s Self-Defense Forces be? Should Japanese peace—and by extension, East Asian peace—be secured by Japan alone, as Donald Trump, convinced as he is that the U.S.-Japan security alliance is not a ‘fair deal,’ would wish?” If pressed on any of these questions, individual Japanese would probably have diverging views. Yet a meaningful, broad-based debate is hard to come by. Most Japanese accept peace as something akin to a birthright handed down by the government, not something up for discussion or interpretation.
When President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima on May 27, 2016, almost no one in Japan publicly questioned the U.S. use of nuclear weapons in 1945. Instead, the country honored the victims and prayed for peace. The polls conducted after the visit by Kyodo News revealed that 98 percent of the respondents viewed Obama’s visit as a “good thing,” with 74.7 percent affirming that there was no need for a U.S. apology.
World War II left most of Japan’s major cities burned to ashes and its population starved by a network of U.S.-planted sea mines that prevented the transportation of already meager food supplies. Coming out of this devastation, it was easier for many Japanese to embrace a pacifist mantra and hope for a better future than to reflect on their part in the war that inflicted so much suffering on their Asian and Pacific neighbors. Many treated the atomic bombings, along with all other horrific episodes of war, as some sort of natural disaster that befell the country, the kind of misfortune that is nonetheless preventable in the future by the collective strength of pacifist prayers.
Pacifism also became the creed to which Japan, a defeated aggressor state with expansionist designs, could begin identifying itself as a reformed, benign power fit to be welcomed back into the postwar international order. The ensuing intensification of the Cold War and the increasing awareness of the danger of nuclear weapons further facilitated the Japanese embrace of pacifism. As the only country to come under nuclear attack, anti-nuclear arms sentiments became a built-in component of Japanese ideology.
There is nothing inherently worrying with this development, if only Japan at the same time did not sidestep the question of why the wartime calamities, including the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, came about in the first place. By calling attention to its own victimhood on the one hand and highlighting its general desire for peace on the other, the conservative Japanese regime, in power most of the...