Godzilla Ain’t Got Nothin’ on China

21st-century East Asia is a dangerous neighborhood. Japan can no longer afford to be unprepared.


Picture the iconic movie poster from the 1954 Japanese film Godzilla: the massive lizard firing lightning beams from its mouth, crushing a military fighter aircraft in its right hand as two other planes attack in desperation. I remember seeing the film for the first time in 1960 as a first-grader, and watching dozens of similar movies and spinoffs during my childhood.

Thinking back now, those films all have something in common. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, the only military permitted to Japan after its World War II defeat, only fought monsters. They never confronted realistic adversaries such as the Soviet Union or China. Perhaps that’s because they didn’t need to: From the post-World War II era until recently, Japan faced no real external security threats. The ideology of "utopian pacifism" — the belief that if there are no armed forces, there would be no war — dominated Japanese political and cultural life. In those days, Japan benefitted from a very positive external environment: The United States kept the peace in Asia, while China was barely able to project power beyond its borders.

Unfortunately, with China’s rise and America’s relative decline, the world we live in is now different. Wisely, Japan’s leaders are addressing the reality they now face. On July 1, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that his government will be reinterpreting Article 9 of its constitution — which outlaws war as a means of settling disputes — and moving towards what his Cabinet described as "the development of seamless security legislation to ensure Japan’s survival and protect its people." The decision makes the case that since the end of the Cold War, various global threats — proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; international terrorism; and impedance to free access to the sea, outer space, and cyberspace, among others — could directly influence Japan’s security. And Tokyo needs to be ready.  

Critics and fearmongers have bemoaned that this decision demonstrates a dangerous rightward shift towards a remilitarized Japan. And they assert that most Japanese oppose the reinterpretation. It’s true that simple "yes or no" opinion polls show that more than 50 percent of the public opposes the reinterpretation. And to be fair, it’s a big change. The silent majority of Japanese have been taught for decades that the right to militarize was clearly unconstitutional. When I was director for Japan-U.S. security treaty affairs at the Japanese Foreign Ministry in the late 1990s, post-World War II pacifism was so dominant that constitutional reinterpretation was almost unimaginable. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, as relations with China remained positive, many Japanese felt the same way.  

Now, my former colleagues at the Foreign Ministry generally favor reinterpretation. And polls that feature multiple-choice questions — instead of just "yes or no" — show a public much more willing to accept a more vigorous interpretation of self-defense. For example, recent polls by the conservative news outlets Yomiuri Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun both found that roughly two-thirds of the population supports at least some collective self-defense.

The majority of Japanese are not challenging Abe. They recognize the importance of Japan transitioning from utopian pacifism to a more pragmatic, no-nonsense national security orientation. More importantly, they recognize that things could be growing unsafe for Japan. Indeed, a dangerous and unpredictable North Korea probably possesses the ability to launch nuclear weapons at Japan; in late June, it fired short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan. Moreover, for the first time since 1945, Japan faces a territorial threat to its south: Chinese Coast Guard vessels periodically invade Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, which Japan administers and China claims. The present situation is not temporary: It will probably continue for decades.

Unsurprisingly, China is critical of any notion that Abe could reinterpret the constitution to allow a more forceful military posture. China’s official news agency Xinhua stated that "Abe is manipulating a dangerous coup to overturn the country’s post-war pacifism and democratic ideals." However, on the contrary, it is Beijing that is harrying Vietnamese and Philippine vessels in the South China Sea. And since late 2008, Chinese Coast Guard and military vessels have been harassing Japan’s private coast guard, and military ships in the East China Sea. Reactions from many other nations in the region, including the Philippines and Australia, among others, have been supportive of Japan’s recent decision. Those countries believe in the need for a stronger Japan to counter an increasingly aggressive China. And Japan will work closely with its ally the United States to maintain the status quo in the region.  

The goal is not provocation, just self-defense in a different form.   

The majority of Japanese are far from stupid; they support the reinterpretation with conditions. They insist Japan’s that peaceful orientation remain unchanged. They hope that Japan will never again wage war, nor become a military power. And they prefer for Japan to limit its use of force.  

However, the silent majority are also aware that the geopolitical reality in East Asia is transforming with increasing rapidity, and they want Japan to contribute even more proactively to the peace and stability of the international community. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces can no longer just fight monsters. They may one day have real enemies to fight.

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