Philistines

Three cheers for America’s Japan pundits! In the wake of a reinterpretation of Japan’s Constitution to permit the exercise of collective self-defense, our resident experts in think tanks and academia demonstrated independence of mind with a chorus of approval. No groupthink here! The fact that their positions aligned with that of the United States government, which has for decades pressed Japan to rip up Article 9, is completely coincidental. Nor, in the case of those with previous service in the State Department, Pentagon, and National Security Council, was their scholarly objectivity the least bit compromised. Who would draw parallels with the way scholars in the Soviet Union parroted the Party line? Only a party pooper.

If the Japan wonks had one message above all, it was that this absolutely critical change was no big deal. This “historic shift,” this “landmark moment,” declare Richard Fontaine and Jeffrey W. Hornung, “is unlikely to change very much in practice, at least in the near term.” For Jennifer Lind, “The most recent change in Japanese defense policy is thus both remarkable and routine.” You see, Article 9 wasn’t eviscerated all at once. As Lind (ex-DOD) puts it, “Japan’s gradual relaxation of defense constraints should in no way suggest that the country is rearming with intent to once again commit aggression in East Asia.” Outside the scope of her study, apparently, is the effect of removing constraints expressly designed to prevent such aggression on the intentions of future administrations.

World-class scholars that they are, these thinkers provide irrefutable support for their thesis that the change isn’t so big: Michael Green and (again) Hornung note the “very restrictive” conditions that must be met in order for Japan to exercise collective self-defense: “1) The situation should pose a clear threat to the Japanese state or could fundamentally threaten the Japanese people’s constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; 2) There is no other way to repel the attack and protect Japan and its people; and 3) The use of force is limited to the minimum necessary.” After all, when a state claims such conditions hold, that means they do. President Bush warned of the imminent threat from Iraq, which is why he is now universally venerated as America’s greatest president for saving us from Saddam Hussein’s WMDs. As to the third condition, look no further than Gaza, where the number of lifeless children mounts by the day. But since Israel says it’s employing minimum necessary force, war crimes charges are entirely groundless. See how it works?

But the wonks don’t stop there. After an exhaustive search, Green and Hornung unearthed crucial evidence that there’s nothing to worry about: “Abe himself has explicitly said that the change will not lead to Japan’s involvement in foreign wars.” Well, that settles that – the prime minister said so! Fontaine (formerly of State and NSC) and Hornung use subtle reasoning to deduce that “the Constitution’s Article 9 … has not changed.” You see, its text hasn’t changed, only what the government takes those words to mean – a matter, obviously, of no consequence. We can but gasp in awe at such penetrating analysis.

Some benighted souls, however, aren’t as thrilled with the teensy-weensy reinterpretation. Fontaine and Hornung highlight criticism from other Asian nations, but focusing on criticism from China is not, repeat not, a straw man! Most wonks, though, paid at least some attention to opposition within Japan itself. Lind strides in with historical context: since the Second World War, the Japanese, she says, “have been skittish of rearmament and involvement in overseas military operations.” Webster’s defines “skittish” as “easily frightened, jumpy” – you know, like a horse. Imagine that – a little thing like millions of dead and cities in ruins, and the easily frightened Japanese still get jumpy as Abe coaxes them back into the starting gate.

Well, stop fretting, fraidy-cats: Green and Hornung are telling you that Article 9 has not been “completely and blatantly” gutted. Coming from as valiant a champion of pacifism as former Bush NSC staffer Michael Green, who can fail to be reassured?

One source of opposition goes entirely unmentioned by these experts: Japanese constitutional scholars, most of whom find even the Self-Defense Forces unconstitutional, to say nothing of relaxed conditions for their deployment. Do you find this omission odd, dear reader? Then for once in your life, think like a Japan wonk! People who worry about quaint legal niceties are obviously Marxists or something. You’re not a Commie, are you, dear reader?

James Schoff (ex-DOD) predicts that the decision “will produce a substantive (yet incremental) policy change that the Japanese and other nations will embrace over time.” (italics mine) You see, in Schoff’s groundbreaking theory of democracy, governments properly ignore public opinion while making “an historic reinterpretation of the nation’s constitution,” confident that the pesky electorate will come around later. Sheila Smith expands on this view, opining that “Japan’s prime minister needs to persuade the Japanese public that he is on the right path.” The public too has an important role to play: “The Japanese people must support this evolving role for their military,” writes Smith.

Green and Hornung’s airtight proof of the democratic legitimacy of Abe’s approach to authorizing the change deserves special recognition. “During this process,” they say, “the proceedings were reported upon daily by Japan’s media, enabling voters to be fully aware of the discussions.” Plus, Abe held a press conference! Yes, we all remember Tom Paine’s stirring exhortation that between elections, people just need to shut up and listen. As the two savants also observe, “Japan today is a deeply rooted democratic country with strong civilian control over a well-trained military and a seven-decade record of peaceful activity.” If detecting a causal link between Article 9 and that record is beyond the capacity of such august authorities, we may be certain that none exists.

In the halls of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the sound of popping champagne corks may have subsided, but never fear, we won’t lack for more sublime wisdom from these sages. They may soon be explaining why building a new U.S. base in Okinawa – and using strong-arm tactics to break up local protests – is just Abe’s little way of “reducing the burden” on that prefecture. Enlisting Japan in U.S. global strategy is an “incremental” process, so the work of an American Japan wonk is never done.


On a serious note, I don’t remember when I first read about Article 9, but it made an enormous impression on me. Here was a country that had experienced the very worst that war can offer (and yes, inflicted it on others as well). And with help from the U.S. Occupation, that country had learned from its experiences and renounced war itself. The people of Japan blamed their sufferings not primarily on the enemy, but on those who led them into tragedy. And so they placed real institutional constraints on what leaders could do in the future. Affirmations of devotion to peace are often hollow, but here was a solid and courageous commitment.

If there was any redemption from the horrors of World War II, it was Article 9, pointing to the possibility of ending reliance on military force. A world that felt those horrors keenly and was dedicated to preventing a repeat of them would have carefully nurtured that hope.

So behind the bile above is sorrow at the destruction of something beautiful. A kind of beauty beyond the comprehension of philistines with value systems that begin and end with “U.S. interests,” in advance of which they are always eager to provide wretched rationalizations.

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