In 1983, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone pledged to Ronald Reagan that Japan was America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Today those words echo louder than ever. Since 2011, the United States’ pivot to Asia — the reorientation of its military power from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region — has escalated tensions between the United States and China and North Korea, and Japan is the tip of America’s spear.
This is advantageous for Japan’s rising far right. Also in 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster precipitated an economic slump, which compounded the effects of earlier financial crises and contributed to the decay of Japanese civil society. As elsewhere, reactionary politics have rushed in to fill the void. As China and North Korea loom large, the Japanese far right has finally found an opportunity to carry out its long-cherished project of transforming the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) into a fully functional and independent military — with Washington’s encouragement.
As the Japanese far right has established a political presence over the last decade, the curtailing of civil liberties, a swell of nationalist sentiment (articulated frequently in the demand for remilitarization), and even the jailing of dissenters have followed. Other East Asian nations, including China, are understandably concerned about Japanese remilitarization, as the forces unleashed in 2011 threaten to change Japan beyond all recognition.
But the foreign policy cognoscenti who forge Washington’s Japan policy appear totally blind to the legitimacy of East Asian objections. They are either ignoring the fascist element pushing for and benefitting from Japanese remilitarization or, worse yet, embracing it.
The Road to Remilitarization
Ever since the formation of the modern Japanese state in 1945, there has been an ongoing debate over Article 9 of the postwar constitution, which explicitly forbids the creation of an offensively capable Japanese military. However, in 1954, Japan established the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, a functional military that is simply legally barred from taking offensive actions.
Hawks on the Japanese right have argued from the beginning that Japan must eventually regain total military independence. The conflict has turned especially heated since North Korea’s development of ballistic nuclear missiles capable of reaching the Japanese mainland. Japanese military investment has steadily risen, at least since Nakasone’s term in the 1980s, and as of 2020 it has the world’s ninth-largest military budget at $49.1 billion.
Unsurprisingly, the United States has played a large role in pushing Japanese remilitarization, despite having written the constitution that barred it in the first place. After 1948, the United States rapidly switched course on demilitarizing Japan in order to counterbalance China, and the driving force of the modern militarization movement is the growth of China’s military strength and assertiveness in the twenty-first century. In fact, the ongoing confrontation between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, a string of uninhabited islands near Taiwan, which began in earnest when Japan nationalized the islands in 2012, has served as the pretext for much of Tokyo and Beijing’s recent military buildup in the area.
Arguments from the American side are invariably couched in terms of Japan’s need to contribute more to the US-Japan alliance and to defend itself from China and North Korea. In this regard, the Trump and Biden administrations have differed little. Joe Biden’s staff views the India-Australia-Japan-US “Quad” military alliance as key to containing China, and includes remilitarization of Japan in its purview. His administration has aggressively pursued this vision since taking office, even cutting Europe out of the Pacific to focus on Quad allies.
However, the primary forces pushing remilitarization within Japan are the right wing of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the country’s ruling party, and Nippon Kaigi, a powerful far-right lobbying group that counts a third of the Diet and many prominent government ministers, including former prime minister Shinzō Abe himself, among its members. Not unlike the Christian Democrats in West Germany, the LDP is a center-right party that was pushed into prominence in no small part by the Office of Strategic Services and the Central Intelligence Agency after 1945. Its dominance has rendered Japan practically a one-party state — the party has fallen out of power only twice for brief interregnums from 1993 to 1996 and 2009 to 2012.
The growing dominance of Nippon Kaigi has pushed the LDP further to the right and intensified the belligerence of the rhetoric coming out of Tokyo. The United States has repeatedly intervened to fortify the LDP’s position for its own purposes — including pushing Yukio Hatoyama, one of the few non-LDP postwar prime ministers, out of office in 2010 for attempting to close the US military base in Okinawa and normalize relations with China.
The Social Situation
The rise of Japan’s far right and the renewal of its remilitarization campaign are manifestations of Japan’s geopolitical strategic role and the country’s declining material conditions.
Japan has suffered from a moribund economy since the 1990s. It was only worsened by the Fukushima disaster in 2011, which the nation still hadn’t recovered from when COVID-19 hit in 2020. The nation’s economic troubles have coincided with a rise in reactionary politics. Japan has maintained superficial racial harmony since 1945 due to the relative invisibility of its minority populations, but even that has begun to change. In the 2010s, increasing campaigns of harassment and vandalism targeting Southeast Asian immigrants and Koreans forced the Diet to pass anti-hate-speech legislation for the first time in its history — although the law is largely toothless, imposing no actual penalty for its violation.
As nationalism and xenophobia grow, the JSDF’s participation in disaster relief after Fukushima has rehabilitated its domestic image, with over 90 percent of the country now approving of what is functionally Japan’s military.
Carrying the legacy of Japanese fascism, the LDP (and particularly Nippon Kaigi) is the knowing driver of both this growing racism and nationalism and Japan’s swelling military fervor. The synthesis of remilitarization with reactionary politics is embodied in the party’s longtime leader, Shinzō Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, who retired only last year due to his declining health. Abe has usually been treated as a moderate by the foreign press due to his center-right economic policy and unassuming public figure, but he has been exposed multiple times as a far-right reactionary on social issues, particularly concerning nationalism and the Japanese military. This should come as no surprise considering Abe is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, a founding father of Japanese fascism and one of Japan’s most notorious postwar prime ministers.
Kishi served as the economic director of the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria, Manchukuo, from 1936 to 1939, where he regularly visited the brothels staffed by “comfort women” sex slaves and pioneered the use of forced labor in Japan’s work camps. After the war, Kishi was charged as a Class-A war criminal, the highest designation, and spent two years in prison, but after 1948, the United States changed course in order to transform Japan into an anti-communist bastion. It released the fascist war criminals it had imprisoned, including Kishi, and collaborated with the new government to systematically cover up and deny Japanese atrocities (which is partly why, even in Korea, the “comfort women” issue was not well known or understood until 1996).
Throughout the ’50s, Kishi and his yakuza mafia allies were key players in controlling labor and forging the Liberal Democratic Party from the warring Liberal and Democratic parties. After becoming prime minister in 1957, Kishi undertook an agenda so openly fascist, not to mention obeisant to the United States, that 30 million Japanese mobilized to protest his rule, the largest demonstrations in Japan’s history. He stepped down in disgrace in 1960, but forty-six years later his grandson Abe would himself be elected prime minister.
Abe was close to his grandfather and claims to have learned about politics on Kishi’s knee. He has credited his affinity with conservatism to what he considers the “unfairness” with which Kishi was treated, and has objected to his grandfather being labeled a war criminal at all. Abe has also systematically denied that women were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese empire, as well as many of its other crimes.
In his two periods as prime minister, from 2006 to 2007 and 2012 to 2020, Abe expanded the military budget every year. His attempts to force a referendum on the reinterpretation of Article 9 failed, but he did succeed at implementing several laws criminalizing dissent and whistleblowing, such as the controversial State Secrecy Law in 2013. This has led to dire warnings from Reporters Without Borders and Edward Snowden over the precipitous decline of free speech and press in Japan.
Abe also continued the Japanese right’s efforts to fight a culture war through primary school textbooks, leading a fight to “take back textbooks” from the progressive left and introduce “moral and patriotic education.” Abe’s wife famously served as honorary principal at Moritomo Gakuen, the “racist kindergarten” where children were led in chants calling Koreans filthy and subhuman, and Abe himself visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in 2013 and sent offerings thereafter. There have even been cases of anti-war protestors being arrested and detained for extended periods, with Hiroji Yamashiro, the chair of the Okinawa Peace Action Center, being jailed for five months in 2015.
Abe’s remilitarization agenda was ultimately derailed by his plummeting popularity after a series of corruption scandals, his failing health, and the arrival of COVID in 2020. Unfortunately, although his replacement, Yoshihide Suga, was primarily concerned with COVID and the Olympics, he approved a record high defense budget of over ¥5 trillion ($49 billion) for 2021. There is little indication that Suga’s nominally more liberal successor, Fumio Kishida, intends to change course — Abe’s hawkish brother Nobuo Kishi remains minister of defense — and the already struggling anti-war movement has made little progress during COVID.
Japanese liberalism appears to be in decline, and the remilitarization movement threatens the country’s greatest bulwark against fascism: its constitutional commitment to pacifism. A twenty-first century Japanese fascism will take a drastically different form than it did in the 1930s, but there is no doubt it constitutes a major threat to East Asia and Japan itself.
Playing With Fire
Before and during World War II, the Japanese military committed some of the worst atrocities in recorded history, of which the Rape of Nanjing is probably the most infamous. The enslavement of hundreds of thousands of primarily Korean women (euphemistically termed “comfort women”) for sexual exploitation was so violent and widespread that it continues to be the defining event for a generation of women in Korea. The testing of biological weapons on coastal Chinese cities killed hundreds of thousands in man-made bubonic plague epidemics. Precise numbers are almost impossible to come by due to the wholesale destruction of the Japanese archives, but scholarly estimates of the number of civilians deliberately killed during the official period of Japanese fascism reach into the millions.
Considering this history, it’s not surprising that Japan’s neighbors — particularly Korea and China — have objected to any form of rearmament. The Japanese military has increasingly pushed for long-range strike capabilities with missiles that could reach Chinese and Korean cities, supposedly to destroy North Korean missile launchers as a form of preemptive defense. China and both Koreas have understandably viewed this as a provocation.
Chinese state media has been abundantly clear that China emphatically rejects any move by Japan to remilitarize. Chi Wang, who was an honorary consultant on US-China trade for the H. W. Bush administration, has argued that China should be more afraid of the Japanese military than the American one. North Korea’s belligerent stance toward Japan obviously has not been assuaged by the expansion of its military, and there are indications that South Korea, nominally Japan’s ally, views a resurgent Japan as a greater threat to its national security than China or even North Korea.
In one of the worst-case scenarios, Japan’s acquisition of offensive-strike capabilities triggers a North Korean or Chinese preemptive attack. For that reason, international proponents of remilitarization tend to agree that Japan should reassure its neighbors that it is exclusively building defensive capabilities, if only as a matter of strategic optics. But Japan’s actions belie the claim: in 2020 the JSDF pushed for more investment in long-range missiles and force-projecting aircraft carriers.
Even bearing in mind the potential downsides, there are still arguments for developing Japan’s defensive military capacities that are not prima facie unreasonable. Building Japan’s military independence could reduce US involvement in the region, and despite the risks of destabilization, it is not impossible that, if managed correctly, it could discourage “aggression” on the part of China and North Korea.
But this leads us to the problem with the Anglo-American arguments. If there is a cost-benefit analysis to be made weighing the benefits of remilitarization against the rise of reactionary politics in Japan and the East Asian response to remilitarization, no one in “the Blob” appears to have done it. In fact, the glibness with which Washington experts dismiss the discomfort Japan’s neighbors feel toward its growing military assertiveness is remarkable, as is the absence of concern about the rise of the Japanese far right.
In the New York Times, Ian Buruma ultimately concludes that South Korea’s objections are somewhat irrational and driven by “historical passions.” In the Wall Street Journal, Patrick McCabe, an employee of US Indo-Pacific Command, the agency in charge of the military’s Pacific operations, claims that Japanese remilitarization is nothing more than “Beijing’s narrative.”
Perhaps most notably, an article written in Foreign Affairs in 2014 by Biden’s Asia czar Kurt M. Campbell and his top Asia advisor in the Pentagon, Ely Ratner, claims that “characteriz[ing] Japan’s constitutional reinterpretation and military modernization as reactionary or militaristic” is “Chinese propaganda.” They acknowledge some of Abe’s more offensive gestures, but wave them off as unfortunate public relations blunders rather than an indication of what lies beneath the surface of Japanese remilitarization.
Ignorance or Incentive?
As for why Anglo-American experts seem to have averted their eyes from Japan’s obvious provocations, Debito Arudou makes the argument that credulous American strategists are being taken in by a right-wing Japanese charm offensive, and simply fail to understand the danger of what they’re toying with.
That’s the charitable interpretation. The uncharitable interpretation is that they don’t care, or even welcome it. In the postwar era, the Dulles brothers and the other progenitors of America’s East Asian strategy made the calculation that tipping Japan back toward a managed parliamentary cryptofascism was the best way to block the communist threat. It’s entirely possible that their contemporary counterparts have already come to the same conclusion, though they might not state it outright, or even in private.
Moreover, the financial incentives for the Blob to push remilitarization are profound. A fully militarized Japan would raise its demand for American weapons even further, and Biden’s foreign-policy staff have deep connections to Japan hawk think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a New American Security. Biden’s Asia czar Kurt Campbell himself actually founded the latter, which counts Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and BAE Systems among its major contributors, and has publicly disclosed hundreds of thousands of dollars received directly from the governments of Japan and Taiwan.
It is difficult to say where a post-Abe, post-COVID Japanese politics will lead. Kishida has at least gestured toward improving ties with China, but given Abe’s continued stranglehold on the LDP, as well as the actions and personnel of the Biden administration, there is little reason to hope for change from the top.
Fortunately, so far the Japanese people have not swallowed the proposition that rearmament is a necessity. Despite the high approval rating of the JSDF, a majority of the country remains opposed to any revision or reinterpretation of Article 9. However, so long as Japan remains economically moribund and tensions with China continue to escalate, that number may continue to fall.
Any movement committed to preventing war and building transnational solidarity must consider the threat of Japan’s remilitarization, and the United States’ role in encouraging it. Empowering and arming Japan’s far right could be the worst mistake in the pivot to Asia yet.