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Whither Japan? Seven Decades After Defeat

Herbert P. Bix is Emeritus Professor of History and Sociology at Binghamton University, SUNY. His book, Hirohito And The Making Of Modern Japan, received a Pulitzer award for general nonfiction in 2000.

This essay benefitted from the editorial comments of Deborah Bix and from Mark Selden’s comments on earlier drafts. Onitsuka Hiroshi kindly furnished key sources.

The hard-won lessons of Japan’s wartime defeat are enshrined in its National Constitution and Article 9 in particular. The latter stipulates, “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” To accomplish this aim, “land, sea, and air forces…will never be maintained” and “the right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” For the past seventy years, Article 9 remained a fundamental principle of Japanese diplomacy, undergirded by memories of the Asia-Pacific War and the U.S. occupation, buttressed by important revisionist histories of Japanese imperialism. A politically recovered, economically restored Japanese populace still appreciates the Constitution and the relevance of Article 9. But conservative politicians who never believed in the Constitution’s ideals repeatedly challenged and worked around Article 9 despite the majority’s support for it.1

Today, once again, Article 9 stands in danger of abandonment by interpretation rather than revision by constitutional processes. Senior Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Diet members, their expert advisers, and media pundits have ceased to pay even lip service to the Constitution’s mandated ideal of pacifism. For these conservatives, the disavowal of force to settle international disputes represents a fetter on Japan’s future expansion as a great Asian power. The more progressive majority, by contrast, has a generally positive attitude toward Article 9. They understand that pacifism constitutes a support for democracy and a great advance for humankind. They have never departed from upholding it. This split represents a crucial difference in the people’s and the ruling elites’ conception of the state. It traces back to the reform phase of the occupation era when U.S. and Japanese officials were tacitly cooperating to remake the emperor’s image.2

At the present moment, in every single dimension that once fixed Japan’s place in the post-Second World War peace settlement, the government of LDP Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is working to narrow this perception gap and reshape public attitudes toward war, as well as the military alliance with the United States that determines Japan’s overall foreign policy. Although constitutional revision has been a principle goal of the LDP ever since its establishment in 1955—the decade when the CIA began weakening left-wing forces and bolstering the conservatives—no previous regime has been as determined as his to pursue it.

In the autumn and winter of 1945, a triumphalist United States expanded its sphere of geopolitical control with a view to consolidating a gigantic Asian-Pacific empire in the form of military bases and forward-positioned ships, planes, and troops. This occurred first in the course of taking advantage of Japan’s surrender in China, the U.S.-divided Korean peninsula, and elsewhere throughout the Pacific. Now, once again, imperial America feels challenged in Asia and is working with its main ally Japan to cope with the situation. We need to assess the reasons for Abe’s determination to obtain greater freedom to act militarily overseas. Why is he willing to risk involving Japan in armed conflicts even if huge sections of the public are strongly opposed?

Given that China, the world’s second biggest economy, has regained its ascendant position on the Asian continent and is striving to control its own littoral waters, the question arises: Does China’s regime present Japan, the world’s third biggest economy, with an imminent military threat? Does North Korea, which is weak, isolated, demonized, and nuclear-armed, pose a mortal danger?3 Or does a serious danger lurk elsewhere? Perhaps joining in unwavering support of U.S. economic sanctions and U.S. global war strategies is an unrecognized threat? In that case the questions become: Is there a path for Japan to follow in dealing with China, North Korea, and the United States that does not involve the threat of force and is more beneficial to humanity than the one Japan is on? Does popular, uncritical acceptance of the Security Treaty block this path?

Last, we cannot set aside the reality of climate change, which brings the struggles of all peoples living in Pacific islands and along continental coasts closer together on a wide range of issues. These issues center on the harmful effects of corporate capitalism and neoliberal reforms. They have reshaped conservative politics, contributed to the growth of poverty, and in numerous other ways worsened the quality of life for the poor and middle classes even in technologically advanced countries.


Japan’s ruling elites have profited from supporting actively, diplomatically, and morally every U.S. military campaign from the Korean War forward. In the watershed decade of the 1990s, when many people throughout the world imagined the Cold War to have ended, American liberalism seemed triumphant. Throughout this decade and into the next the outlook of Japan’s leaders barely changed. They drew closer to the United States as China slowly began to make its presence felt in the world’s oceans and continents. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the LDP government of Toshiki Kaifu provided much of the funds for the first U.S.-led Gulf War (1991–1992), but did not send Self Defense Forces to Iraq as Washington urged. Under U.S. pressure, Japan also supported the unprecedentedly severe UN Security Council “sanctions regime” against Iraq. Devised and enforced chiefly by the United States and United Kingdom, the sanctions led to the death—from malnutrition, disease, and lack of medicine—of a huge number of Iraqi children and youths.4 According to UN estimates, 1.7 million Iraqis died due to the “sanctions regime, half of whom were civilians.”5

A decade later al-Qaeda terrorists attacked on United States soil as payback for U.S. behavior in the Middle East, including the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. American rage ignited. The United States set off on a course of undeclared global warfare against “terrorism.” LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi quickly pledged Japan’s unconditional support so as to assure continued U.S. assistance at a time of increasing Japan-China tensions.

Concurrently, between 2001 and 2006, Koizumi avoided full-scale military intervention in America’s wars of naked aggression and occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, at U.S. request, he dispatched a small Self Defense Force on a time-limited support mission to the Iraq war zone after Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq (May 2003). The troops arrived in southern Iraq in January 2004 in the midst of the Sunni uprising against the American crusaders. They withdrew two years later having accomplished little. Earlier, Japan had contributed to UN overseas humanitarian aid and reconstruction missions in a period when China and South Korea were doing the same.

When the hawkish Abe took the helm for the first time in September 2006, his foreign policy gave the impression of a more abject submission to U.S. dictates. During his one year in office (September 2006 to September 2007), the Foreign Ministry maintained silence about Pakistan’s nuclear policies, making a mockery of Japan’s professed opposition to nuclear proliferation and the testing of nuclear-capable missiles. Abe also increased Japan’s support for Pakistan’s military dictatorship and showed an interest in involving Japan’s Self Defense Forces in a military role in Afghanistan.6

Then in summer 2009 came an interregnum. The well-organized LDP lost power to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), only to regain it in 2012. A divided opposition, long incumbency, an unlevel playing field, and an unprecedentedly low turnout (by Japanese standards) accounted for the LDP victory. Thereupon Abe rejected China’s treatment of Japan in Chinese high school and university textbooks and he increased his support for U.S. President Barack Obama’s war policies, even though they were partly a continuation of the Bush-Cheney failed policies.

Following Beijing’s declaration in November 2013 of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the Senkaku islands and surrounding waters of the East China Sea, Abe hardened his stance toward China. In the South China Sea region, where China claims “undisputed sovereignty,” Abe and senior LDP officials joined the United States in criticizing China’s reclamation projects and its building of airstrips and port facilities in the Spratly Archipelago and Paracel Island chain. The Philippines and Vietnam both assert sovereignty over these rocks and shoals, and the United States and Japan support their claims. China’s representatives decry their actions. They note that, while it abides by international law and has ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the United States has a long record of ignoring international law and its dysfunctional Senate has never ratified this UN Convention.7

Now that China has belatedly asserted its determination to project power in part of the South China Sea so as not to be placed in an inferior position by the stronger navies of the United States and Japan, Washington and Tokyo have become alarmed.8 They regard control of even the most remote areas of the Asia-Pacific region as essential for the future growth of their own transnational corporations. These maritime disputes vividly display the economic rivalry of nations and the emotions aroused by nationalism. In considering them we need to remember that it was the United States that had unilaterally established so-called “rules” of the existing Asian-Pacific international order. Now, the United States and Japan fear China is unilaterally altering this status quo and carving out its own zone of influence as its power grows.

Given these strategic views, the Abe administration and its coalition partner, Komeito, resolved to encourage heightened Japanese nationalism. When there was little need for them to strengthen the state secrets protection system, they did it anyway, thereby curtailing the freedom of speech and publication of citizens and the mainstream press alike.9 They joined the global arms race by fostering arms exports, long banned during the Cold War. They readied one of their new aircraft carriers, the Izumo—a converted “flat-topped destroyer loaded with helicopters”—for future assignments either in support of U.S. warships defending against North Korean missiles or in support of Southeast Asian nations in territorial disputes with China.10

More recently, Abe accepted a set of provocative U.S. “guideline” agreements for military cooperation against China in regions where claimed islands and sea space overlap, and where the United States deliberately inserts itself against China. The new guidelines anticipate a future in which, during a major confrontation, Japanese military forces would be assisting Americans operating in the Korean peninsula and joining with them to control busy shipping lanes and straits in the South China Sea.11

Meanwhile, the licensing agreements and joint ventures with American defense contractors that Japanese corporations had established during the 1960s increased over time, as did Pentagon grants to Japanese universities for research with military objectives.12 The close ties between Japan’s small military-industrial complex and America’s gigantic one continued to bear fruit. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which is developing the first stealth fighter plane for the Air Self Defense Force, and Kawasaki Heavy Industries, producer of aircraft and helicopters for the Defense Ministry, exhibited their weapons in Japan’s first ever international arms trade show in Yokohama.13 Japan’s replicas of weapons and domestically produced surveillance drones were on display, though the Defense Ministry has not yet moved to the stage of producing a fleet of unmanned missile-firing aircraft. In due time it may try to do so because China is already producing and exporting the huge, lethal Wing Loong drone which carries two air-to-surface missiles.14

The trade show was a symbolic event that served the interests of Japanese arms makers eager to sell weapons and technological components. At the time, it vied for media attention with the state secrets protection bill and other initiatives of the Abe regime. But never did Japanese public opinion support the idea of an arms fair.15

For the past three years the people’s commitment to peace and to Article 9 has been evident in growing street demonstrations around the Diet building and before the prime minister’s official residence. It was seen in protests by various lawyers groups, and in events staged by Tokyo Democracy Crew, the Counter-Racist Action Collective, and Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes. Many of the newly formed groups also respond to the struggle in Okinawa. Further scrutiny of activist responses to Abe’s policies reveals the appearance of another youth group, Racist o Shibakitai (Trash Racists). Shibakitai labels Abe a “fascist” and struggles against Japan’s reliance on nuclear power generation and regressive trends in the Japanese universities.16

Interestingly, Abe’s focus on national security has also brought on the scene organizations such as the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs), which educates students about the dangers of the state secrets law. SEALDs desires to move Japan along the path specified in its Constitution. Taken all together, these organizations constitute an activist, progressive student movement. Using music and YouTube they are creating conditions for broader joint struggles.

In ordinary Japanese discourse a formerly proscribed strategic propaganda term—”collective self-defense”—has been normalized. People are accustomed now to using “collective self-defense” when thinking about Japan in the world. As long as certain conditions are met, the Self Defense Forces can help the United States in minesweeping operations in the Middle East. Since 2009, Japanese air and naval patrols have operated from the Gulf of Aden against Somali pirates. A National Security Council has been established. Military and economic ties are being strengthened with countries in Southeast Asia that have territorial disputes with China, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Japan has also increased its ties with India, ruled now by Narendra Modi and his ultra-nationalist Indian People’s Party (BJP). In conformance with new Japan-U.S. “guidelines,” legislation was drafted for dealing with national emergencies.

Finally, in July and September 2015, Abe succeeded in forcing through the Diet his set of eleven U.S.-backed security bills expanding the missions of the Self Defense Forces. He did so in the face of massive public opposition and a large drop in his support ratings.17 As Okinawa’s Ryukyu shimpo editorialized, Abe’s LDP “does not in the least deepen popular understanding of the new legislation.” They could only give the vaguest account of the “collective self-defense” that is at its heart and were unable to answer the many constitutional scholars and former cabinet officials who claimed the legislation was unconstitutional.18

Despite the gradual, multifaceted re-militarization that Japan is undergoing, most Japanese people are neither imbued with the spirit of destructive militarism, or of egoistic nationalism. They understand that their Constitution requires the Self Defense Forces not be dispatched abroad to fight wars; its military power must be kept to a minimum. These principles, growing out of the U.S. postwar reforms, enjoy strong majority support. To bridge long-running differences between elite and popular opinion, the LDP is forced to conduct propaganda campaigns at many levels. Not surprisingly, even officials of the Imperial Household Agency have entered into the overall effort to influence public opinion on the twentieth century history of Japan by publishing, in 2015, a huge trove of documents, diaries, and reminiscences, which constitute the official history of the Showa emperor Hirohito’s life and reign.

Despite the many ways that Abe signals his readiness to use Japan’s military forces in order to defend the country’s economic interests and maintain its present position within the global economy, Japan remains a middle-sized economic power, ranked fourth in GDP growth estimates which take 2014 as the base year. This places Japan well behind China, the United States, and India.19 Its population in 2015 fell to 126 million and the pace of decrease is expected to accelerate over the next four decades. Given Japan’s rapidly aging population, further decline in its overall GDP ranking is inevitable.20 Yet these structural contradictions have not dissuaded the Abe cabinet from aspiring to play a hegemonic role in Asia far greater than its demographic weight and economic power can sustain.

Another concern of the LDP government is Japan’s lack of an official national strategy of preemptive war, not to mention a global structure of military bases. Nevertheless, the LDP allocates billions of dollars in taxpayer money to pay for the facilities and bases in Okinawa, “including the buildings, the salaries of Japanese civilian employees, and even the air conditioning for offices and barracks.”21 Guam redevelopment, part of the liberal Obama’s “rebalancing” or “pivot” to Asia and the Pacific, entails moving thousands of U.S. Marines and their dependents from Okinawa to Guam. It will cost Japanese taxpayers unknown billions of dollars.22 When completed, the pivot will result in the relocation of 60 percent of the U.S. navy to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The Pentagon thus gets a free ride training U.S. troops and pilots for wars and interventions around the world that have little to do with defending Japan. That China pushes back against these developments is understandable.

While the right-wing leaders of today’s Japan see advantages in tolerating the U.S. military presence on their soil, their continuous offerings to Washington should not be misread as indicating that Japan remains just another U.S. “client state.” It is better to think of Japan’s leadership as allies of U.S. imperialism with an agenda of their own. The Abe cabinet ingratiates itself with the head of the American empire and his top officials because its members desired to make Japan a leading player in world affairs and, eventually, a great Asian hegemonic power. The legal framework they are putting in place is not intended to someday revive prewar Japanese imperialism. Rather, the goal is to make Japan a more effective supporter of the global corporate order.

Because Abe’s Asia-Pacific policy erodes and is incompatible with democratic freedoms at home, it cannot be discussed without noting his efforts to counter dissent. Two features stand out.

First, Abe tightened control of the media and placed Katsuo Momii, an apologist for Japan’s wartime sexual slavery and a Nanjing massacre denier, in charge of NHK (Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai), the public broadcasting corporation. Chairman Momii believes his mission is to insure that NHK journalists present news in sync with government policies.23 Media commentators on other news outlets who refused to toe the government line have lost their jobs, such as Shigeaki Koga, who anchored a program on TV Asahi.24 Foreign reporters too have experienced Japanese government pressure, in the form of uninvited visits by Japanese consul generals intent on communicating objections from Tokyo, after their papers had run critical stories about Abe’s historical revisionism.

Second, Abe’s support for the 1999 law—on raising the national flag at junior and high school entrance and graduation ceremonies, and singing “Kimigayo,” the highly controversial national anthem which praises the emperor—seems to be a minor issue. But academic freedom is threatened when his education minister, the right-wing ideologue Shimomura Hakubun, urges national universities to follow the same practice.25 The academic freedom of the national universities and of all Japanese universities is under pressure. The case of Takashi Uemura, an Asahi shimbun investigative journalist who once wrote a series of articles about “comfort women,” such as Hak-sun Kim, illustrates this. In 1991 when Uemura had retired and was teaching at Kobe Shoin Women’s University in Hokkaido, a neo-nationalist extremist, Professor Tsutomu Nishioka, attacked Uemura in a weekly magazine for disseminating “Korean lies,” and the university dismissed Uemura.26 In 2014, after he had secured employment as a part-time lecturer at Hokusei Gakuen University, a private Christian university in Sapporo, the attacks increased. However, Hokusei Gakuen stood firm and renewed his contract.27

The LDP’s insistence on the maximum use of nuclear energy to generate electricity also represents another attack on democracy, for the majority of Japanese want to keep idled nuclear plants and eventually shut down and phase out nuclear power. Until recently, weekly large-scale protest demonstrations, involving tens of thousands of middle stratum and affluent citizens, continued in front of Abe’s official residence. The protesters worried about caesium contaminated soil, the health of their children, and the pollution of their food supplies following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The public street demonstrations eventually dwindled once the anti-nuclear struggle moved to the courts. Scores of cases were pending against the Tokyo Electric Power Company and other giant utilities across the country such as Kansai Electric Power which generates nuclear power for the greater Osaka area. But regardless of how the district courts ruled in these cases, the worries remained about restarting nuclear generation in plants near large population centers or adjacent to active seismic faults; so the anti-nuclear protests continued.28

Clearly, many Japanese citizens show in practice their commitment to democracy. Others are so disillusioned that they are not even bothering to vote in uncontested national and prefectural elections.29

The driver of Abe’s hawkish policies is China’s economic ascendancy and its ability to outspend Japan militarily. An equal if not more important factor is U.S. pressure exerted through the Japan-U.S. security treaty system, which many Japanese believe constitutes no threat to their political institutions. In fact, due to Abe’s policies for transforming the military relationship with the United States, the bilateral alliance has become a greater peril than it was in the past.

In this seventieth year commemorating the ending of the Second World War, a great historical debate with many strands has rekindled. This debate recalls the whitewashing of pre- and post-1945 history that went on during and through the end of the U.S. occupation in 1952. Now it feeds into Abe’s attempt to change Japanese thinking on the lost war.

As a believer in falsifying the past, Abe fights to get history textbook publishers to revise their books to reflect government policies. This is especially clear on the issue of Japanese military brothels during the Second World War. The 2014 revisions of social studies textbooks eliminate the terms “comfort women” and sexual violence. In keeping with his policy of distorting wartime history, Abe commented in the Diet that the U.S. textbook publisher McGraw-Hill Education had inaccurately portrayed comfort women. Thereupon officials of the Japanese consulate in New York demanded that the publisher soften its description so that it accorded with Abe’s policies. McGraw-Hill rejected their request.30 But the episode itself was entirely typical of Abe, who often denies historical facts and tolerates historical interpretations only if they accord with his understanding. In disputes over territorial issues such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, Takeshima/Dokdo, and the Northern Territories, his new guidelines stress only the government’s viewpoint.31 Abe misuses state power to distort key events in the history of Imperial Japan to prepare democratic Japan for a larger role in overseas conflicts.

Japan, of course, is but one of many states that cover-up their war crimes and romanticize or deny the dark side of their national pasts. In situations like today where China, South Korea, and Japan repeatedly indict one another for making inadequate official statements of guilt for wartime atrocities, the best antidote is acknowledgment of the facts, however embarrassing to state officials. South Korea, for example, never acknowledged the massacres of Vietnamese civilians by many of the infantry soldiers that its dictator Park Chung-hee sent to Vietnam nearly half a century ago in return for vast U.S. economic aid and the payment of secret bonuses to each Korean soldier. All told, between 1964 and 1969 approximately 312,000 South Koreans were deployed to Vietnam as a mercenary force.32

What complicates the situation for Japan are issues from the past that remain entangled in debate over the Showa emperor Hirohito. He exercised personal leadership during the war, delayed Japan’s surrender, and afterwards was rapidly transformed into the nation’s “symbol.” General Douglas MacArthur and Imperial Japan’s old guard leaders labeled Hirohito a normal constitutional monarch and a pacifist, neither of which was true. They papered over the monarchy’s suppression of anti-war voices and credited the emperor with ending the war and being a courageous loser. Later they immunized him from the Tokyo International War Crimes Tribunal. In concocting all these myths about Hirohito, American and Japanese elites contributed to a false narrative of events that troubled Japan’s neighbors at that time and still generates suspicion about Japan’s incomplete break with its colonial past.

When Abe returned to power in 2012 under the slogans “Take back Japan” and “Restore national pride,” he personalized his reform plan to energize Japanese economic growth after more than a decade of stagnation. He labeled it “Abenomics.” Its scope and boldness attracted worldwide media attention. Coupled with Abenomics was his restarting of the LDP’s ideological campaign to restore Japanese pride. Abe blames the Occupation reforms and the San Francisco Peace Treaty for causing Japan to lose honor. The latter forced Japan to accept all the judgments of the Second World War war crimes trials about the causes of the war and how both sides fought it. Abe initially sought to rewrite the war-renouncing constitution, claiming that it hampered Japan from becoming a “normal” state able to fight wars in defense of geostrategic interests. Later he settled for incremental changes before pushing for a full rewriting. The problem, as he sees it, is twofold: to change Japanese governance and the self-image of citizens and, at the same time, to undercut the fundamental principles of postwar Japanese diplomacy by dispatching the SDF to fight in foreign countries while trying to deepen friendly relations with China and South Korea.33

Recently, a serious challenge to Abe’s security agenda arose in Okinawa prefecture in response to the U.S.-Japan plan to move forward with the construction of a new military base in the face of entrenched opposition, led by the conservative governor of Okinawa, Takashi Onaga. Currently, Onaga is playing a progressive role, bringing attention to the suffering of the Okinawan people and the problem of U.S. bases. His refusal to countenance new base construction has forced Abe to send Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to deal with the matter.

In a public exchange of views with Suga, Onaga, who has a strong sense of ethnic identity, slammed the Abe cabinet for Japan’s discriminatory treatment of the prefecture and for governing against the will of the majority of its one million residents. They oppose overwhelmingly any new U.S. base construction. When Abe finally agreed to meet Onaga in Tokyo ten days after Suga’s visit, the governor reiterated his determination to resist the new base. He asked Abe to inform Obama at their forthcoming meeting in Washington in late April that the U.S. bases contravene the basic human rights of Okinawans and should be removed. Later Defense Minister Gen Nakatani visited Onaga and received from him the same answer: “it is impossible to construct a U.S. base in Henoko.”34

Onaga has proven to be far more reliable than his LDP predecessor in defending Okinawa’s interests on the bases issue. He has left Abe with the choice (in philosopher Charles Douglas Lummis’s words) of either submitting to the power of the Okinawan people, who have already made clear their democratic will to close down the U.S. military bases on Okinawa, or to go ahead with the Henoko move and risk more confrontations with unforeseeable consequences.35

So far, neither the bullying of Abe, Suga, and other officials of the Abe cabinet, nor the merits of America’s so-called soft power, has succeeded in coopting or influencing most Okinawans.36 They are sick and tired of governments in Tokyo that use them as pawns in their dealings with the United States. Though Okinawa comprises 0.6 percent of Japan’s territory, the United States keeps 74 percent of its Japanese bases there. No wonder that Okinawan residents passionately oppose the construction of any new facility for the U.S. Marines. Their local struggle receives financial support from supporters in every part of Japan. It has even acquired an international dimension, evoking sympathy everywhere in the United States and Canada among people who have learned to feel injustice and who want to honor the memory of the young women and girls victimized by Imperial Japan’s and U.S. armed forces. This struggle also resonates among young indigenous Hawaiians and the large diaspora of residents of Okinawan descent who live in the islands that the United States, by a joint resolution of the Congress, forcibly and illegally annexed in 1898.


A more rational policy path exists to the one Japan currently pursues. It grows out of a vision of the world based on a critique of egoistic nationalism, oligarchic government, and the present neoliberal form of corporate capitalism. It focuses on exploring the limitations of Japan’s military alliance with the United States and changing its direction with a view to someday ending it in favor of policies conducive to reducing tensions among Japan’s neighbors. If Japanese strategic policy were to become omnidirectional, it would be grounded in the constitutional renunciation of war as a national principle and manifest a concern with ethics. Concretely, that would mean no longer allowing Japanese territory to be used to project U.S. offensive war power against other countries, and not always following the U.S.-dominated “West.” When contingencies arise Japan would make decisions in its own long-term best interests rather than adhere to the policies of U.S. ruling elites. The Security Treaty system has the effect of preventing Japan from conducting diplomacy in the interest of peace in Asia and the Pacific, as well as its own national interest.37

An omnidirectional foreign policy recognizes that many Asian-Pacific nations with U.S. bases on their soil for containing China are signatories to bilateral neocolonial “status of forces agreements.” American military officials constantly violate these documents of submission and trample on the environmental laws of host nations, as they are doing right now in Okinawa.38 They also use the agreements to meddle in the internal affairs of the host nation and to perpetuate regional conflicts, as they did in Korea in 1950 and again in July 1953, when a military armistice agreement rather than a peace treaty ended the Korean War. If Japan were to pursue a sane foreign policy, it would take account of how the United States uses its bilateral military alliances with client governments throughout the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East.

Today the Pentagon uses its existing bases and treaties to conduct joint military exercises with Japan and South Korea, to build new bases in both nations, and to facilitate the sale by U.S. arms makers of first-strike missile defense systems. In its effort to encircle and bottle up China, the United States has stretched underwater trip wires from Australia to Indonesia. Now the Pentagon is trying to sell South Korea its new, nuclear-capable, THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) cruise missile interceptor system. It is manufactured by Lockheed Martin, which also makes the MEAD (Medium Extended Air Defense) missile defense system; this is being built for Germany with the cooperation of European arms makers.39 Both spell multi-billion dollar profits for the company.

An omnidirectional policy approach would take all these facts into account and distance Japan from provocative imperialist policies. Japanese policy-makers would stop cooperating with American projects that generate global instability or spread terrorism. They would end their participation in NATO’s U.S.-led economic warfare against Russia and abandon their totally unrealistic effort to get Russia to acknowledge Japanese sovereignty over all four “Northern Territories.” Not to do so is to sacrifice Japan’s need for Russian energy resources and markets.40 Worse still, it is equally unrealistic for Abe to support a hot war in Ukraine that could spiral out of control.

Pursuit of a more autonomous foreign policy leads to the question of Japan’s economic relationship with the United States, which middle-class consumers in both nations have found beneficial. Japan-U.S. economic ties that foster peace should be nurtured while trade, banking, and other economic relationships that create conditions of greatly increased exploitation shunned. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) represents exactly the sort of rapacious U.S. plan that an independent Japan would reject. It gives corporations enormous power to forcibly open the economies of twelve Asia-Pacific nations and insure their subordination to the interests of the major American and Japanese global corporations.

Critics of the TPP argue that it will harm not only Japanese and American workers but workers in all member nations, setting them against one another, just as President Clinton’s North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) did.41 A significant difference is that the neoliberal TPP project could end up being worse than NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, which already manages the world economy in the interests of the richest nations.

Now that the TPP has been approved, Abe’s policies may inflict further harm on Japanese voters. Already in many rural areas local businesses and economies are suffering. Abe’s restarting of nuclear power plants and his commitment to the TPP can only worsen this situation. The TPP signals lower wages, increased unemployment, and eroded labor and environmental standards. When disputes arise under it, a secret tribunal of corporate appointed judges, rather than national courts, will adjudicate them. Strategically too, the TPP may function as a component of the overall U.S. “effort to contain China by building a ring of interlinked economies around it.”42


Thus, from within, Japan is experiencing a profound national transformation. Abe’s domestic moves range from neoliberal policies that redistribute wealth upward and sacrifice economic justice, to the acceptance of Obama’s highly secretive TPP. From without, Japan is strengthening its global military posture and risks losing the goodwill of people resisting oppression. In foreign policy the Abe cabinet assists the United States in its quixotic effort to prevent China from changing the post-war structures of international order. So rigid is Abe’s subservience to the United States that he refuses to join China’s fledgling Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Even the right-wing governments of Britain and Australia support the AIIB and wish to collaborate with it in funding large development projects. The Abe cabinet hastily rejected this chance to build trust, and develop Japan-China relations.43

When the Pacific Ocean first became a virtual American lake, the United States could have its aircraft carriers, military bases, and forward-deployed forces close to China and North Korea, and no nation could do anything about it. Today, China sees this situation as the expression of a U.S. right of conquest which it hopes to end. Japan, by supporting the U.S. refusal to allow China to build bases to defend its own sovereignty and territorial integrity in the South China Sea, helps the United States stay in the top dog position.

With respect to North Korea, Abe seems to endorse the U.S. policy of exerting maximum pressure to undermine the dynastic tyranny of Kim Jong-un. A more sensible policy with at least a chance of succeeding would be to work toward denuclearizing the Korean peninsula by encouraging full normalization of relations with the North.44 Meanwhile, Japan supports the imperial ambitions of the United States and NATO, as seen in their rapid, dramatic military expansion right up to Russia’s frontiers.45 These foreign policy stances follow from being chained to the Security Treaty system. They are the reasons Japan is again at a crossroads and why an alternative path is necessary.


  1. See the documentation in Osamu Watanabe’s many books and articles, most recently “‘Sengo’ Nihon no kiro de nani o nasubeki ka,” Sekai, no. 870, June 2015, 80–90, as well as “Fukkoku o meguru futatsu no michi no taiketsu,” in Komori Yoichi, ed, 3.11 o ikinobiru—kenpo ga ikizuku Nihon e (Kyoto: Kamogawa Shuppan, 2010), 174–75.
  2. Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito And The Making Of Modern Japan (New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2000), 637.
  3. Anna Fifield, “North Korea’s Growing Economy—And America’s Misconceptions About It,” Washington Post, March 13, 2015,; Tom Burgis, “North Korea: The Secrets of Office 39,” Financial Times, June 24, 2015,; Gavan McCormack, “Human Rights and Humanitarian Intervention: The North Korean Case,” Journal of Political Criticism 16 [Chongch’i wa p’yongnon] (May 2015): 151–71.
  4. Hans von Sponeck, the diplomat who administered the sanctions, eventually resigned, calling them genocidal. See Hans C. von Sponeck, A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006).
  5. Nafeez Ahmed, “Unworthy Victims: Western Wars Have Killed Four Million Muslims Since 1990,” April 8, 2015,
  6. Michael Penn, Japan and the War on Terror (I.B. Taurus & Co., 2014), 191–93, 186.
  7. Mel Gurtov, “Rules and Rocks: The US-China Standoff Over the South China Sea Island,” Asia-Pacific Journal 13, issue 23, no. 1, June 15, 2015,
  8. Bin Yu, “America’s China Problem,” June 17, 2015,; Charles Clover, “China Makes Rapid Progress on Reclaimed Islands’ Facilities,” Financial Times, July 2, 2015,
  9. Lawrence Repeta, “A New State Secrecy Law for Japan: The Abe Proposal,” Asia-Pacific Journal 11, issue 42, no. 1, October 21, 2013,
  10. David McNeill, “Japan’s Defense Show Signals Continuing Drift from Pacifism,” Irish Times, May 15, 2015,; Doug Tsuruoka, “New U.S.-Japan Guidelines Reflect Shifting Military Realities,” Asia Times, April 27, 2015,
  11. Kyodo, “McCain: SDF Should Expect to See Action in Korea, Deploy to Mideast, South China Sea,” Japan Times, May 2, 2015,
  12. Herbert P. Bix, “The Security Treaty System and the Japanese Military Industrial Complex,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 2, no. 2 (January–March 1970): 30–53.
  13. Isabel Reynolds, “Japan’s First Defense Trade Show Shows Abe Breaking Arms Taboo,” Bloomberg Business, April 19, 2015,
  14. Arthur Herman, “Japan’s Coming Drone Revolution,” Nikkei Asian Review, October 2, 2014,
  15. McNeill, “Japan’s Defense Show Signals Continuing Drift from Pacifism”; McNeill, “Tooling Up for War: Can Japan Benefit from Lifting the Arms Export Ban?,” Japan Times, June 28, 2015,
  16. Noriko Manabe, “Uprising: Music, Youth, and Protest Against the Policies of the Abe Shinzo Government,” Asia-Pacific Journal 12, issue 32, no. 3, August 11, 2014,
  17. Jonathan Soble, “Japan’s Lower House Passes Bills Giving Military Freer Hand to Fight,” New York Times, July 16, 2015,
  18. Shasetsu: Ampo hoan, saiketsu no kyoko wa yurusarenai,” July 15, 2015,
  19. The World in 2050, Will the Shift in Global Economic Power Continue?,” February 2015,
  20. Robin Harding, “Japan’s Population Slide Set to Accelerate,” Financial Times, July 2, 2015,
  21. I am indebted to a personal communication with historian and Okinawa specialist Steve Rabson.
  22. Matthew M. Burke, “New Navy Report Could Clear Way for Marines’ Move from Okinawa to Guam,” Stars and Stripes, April 18, 2014,
  23. Patrick Frater and Mark Schilling, “Message from New President of NHK Katsuto Momii,” Variety, January 26, 2014,,Embattled Leader of Public Broadcaster NHK Puts Abe at Risk,” Asahi Shimbun, March 30, 2014,
  24. Julian Ryall, “Media in Japan Under Growing Pressure to Toe the Line,” April 30, 2015,
  25. Ministry Pressures Universities to Follow Abe’s Wish to Raise National Flag, Sing Anthem,” Asahi Shimbun, April 10, 2015,
  26. Kawabata Tai, “Former Asahi Shimbun Reporter Says Threats Against Him Are Getting Worse,” Japan Times, April 29, 2015,
  27. Martin Fackler, “Japanese University Retains Ex-Journalist Facing Far Rights Ire,” New York Times, December 17, 2014, Also see “Japan’s Fundamental Freedoms Imperiled,” Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 12, issue 41, no. 4, October 13, 2014,
  28. Martin J. Frid, “Getting to Zero: Doing the Nuclear Math about Japan’s Aging Reactors,” Asia-Pacific Journal 10, issue 53, no. 2, December 31, 2012,
  29. Voter Turnout Hits Record Low in Gubernatorial Polls, 38 Assembly Contests,” Asahi Shimbun, April 13, 2015,
  30. Martin Fackler, “U.S. Textbook Skews History, Prime Minister of Japan Says,” New York Times, January 29, 2015,; Alexander Martin, “U.S. Publisher Rebuffs Japan on ‘Comfort Women’ Revision,” Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2015,
  31. Yoshifumi Tawara, “The Abe Government and the 2014 Screening of Japanese Junior High School History Textbooks,” Asia Pacific Journal 13, issue 16, no. 2, April 27, 2015,
  32. Frank Baldwin, “Introduction,” in Frank Baldwin, ed., Without Parallel: The American-Korean Relationship Since 1945 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973), 28–29; Steven Borowiec, “Allegations of S. Korean Atrocities Arising 40 years after Vietnam War,” Los Angeles Times, May 16, 2015,
  33. Watanabe Isamu, “‘Sengo’ Nihon no kiro de nani o nasubeki ka,” 88.
  34. Defense Minister Hits Brick Wall in First Talks with Okinawa Governor,” Asahi shimbun, May 9, 2015,
  35. Charles Douglas Lummis, Ryukyu shimpo, May 29, 2015.
  36. “Soft power” denotes non-military resources that support America’s current global military supremacy. Joseph Nye, a Harvard political scientist, former Pentagon official, and Cold War ideologue is one of its leading advocates. When the Cold War framework collapsed, Nye advised Japan’s leaders that they had only one path forward. That was to retain U.S. bases and deepen and extend their military alliance with the United States. By helping support the American imperial empire, Nye argued, Japan would be helping itself, getting “security” on the cheap, and assuaging the distrust of its Asian neighbors. For a critical overall assessment of Nye, see James Petras, “Mandarin for the Warlords: The Harvard School of Empire Building,” April 16, 2015,
  37. Tessa Morris-Suzuki, “Japanese War Apologies Lost in Translation,” East Asia Forum, April 26, 2015.
  38. Shasetsu: Henoko kensho ihokoku, shonin wa torikeshi shikanai,” July 17, 2015,
  39. John Feffer, “The Madness of THAAD,” May 18, 2015,
  40. See especially the comments at end of James Brown, “Not Even Two? New Developments in the Territorial Dispute between Russia and Japan,” Asia-Pacific Journal 13, issue 38, no. 3, Sept. 21, 2015,
  41. Phillip Dorling, “Trade Deal Could Be Bitter Medicine,” Sidney Morning Herald, November 14, 2013,
  42. Shawn Donnan, “Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and the TPP: What You Need to Know,” April 28, 2015, Financial Times,
  43. Henny Sender, “Japan Expected to Join Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank,” Financial Times, March 30, 2015,
  44. McCormack, “Human Rights and Humanitarian Intervention: The North Korean Case,” 164–66.
  45. Patrick L. Smith, “The New York Times ‘basically rewrites whatever the Kiev authorities say’: Stephen F. Cohen on the U.S./Russia/Ukraine History the Media Won’t Tell You,” Salon, April 16, 2015,
2015, Volume 67, Number 6 (November)
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