Having sworn to ‘forever renounce war’, Japan still alone in a tough neighborhood

Special to WorldTribune.com

DonKirk31By Donald Kirk

TOKYO ― The shadows of war lengthen over Japanese society in thrall to Article 9 of a “peace constitution” foisted under the “occupation” led by the victorious World War II Pacific commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Much as the “rightist” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might want to do away with it, Article 9 still bans Japan’s euphemistically named “self-defense forces” from waging war. Or, to be precise, under Article 9 “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.”

Japan’s Izumo helicopter carrier is as large as the nation’s WWII-era aircraft carriers.

Abe would like dearly to revise or rescind Article 9, but he just cannot get away with it despite shrill anti-Japanese invective from North Korea and concerns about the rising power of China as seen in challenges to the Senkaku Islands, known to the Chinese as Diaoyutai.

Japanese coast guard vessels, not naval or “Maritime Self-Defense Force” ships, rigorously fend off intruding Chinese “fishing boats” besieging the uninhabited islands, much closer to Taiwan than to either mainland China or the southernmost Japanese island prefecture of Okinawa, and Japanese “air self-defense force” planes warn away Chinese aircraft.

The minuet, however, risks turning into warfare with every confrontation in the narrow space between Japan and China or, more immediately, between Japan and the Korean peninsula.

Now the pride of the “maritime self-defense force,” a 19,500-ton helicopter carrier named the Izumo, is about to protect a U.S. Navy supply ship on its way to the flotilla — or “armada,” as President Trump called it — led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson.

Practically speaking, North Korean rhetoric to the contrary, there’s virtually no chance of North Korean submarines endangering these vessels. If gunfire did break out, however, the Izumo would be there in a departure from the restraint of Article 9. In fact, no Japanese warship has previously sailed off in defense of foreign interests. The rationale is Japanese ships should fight for Japan’s allies as they would for Japan.

If that seems like a stretch, so is a large standing military that’s limited to consuming one percent of Japan’s gross domestic product ­ a seemingly small figure that’s actually huge considering Japan’s GDP this year is coming to about $4.84 trillion. That’s way behind the projected U.S. GDP of $19.42 trillion or China at $11.8 trillion but ranks third ahead of Germany at $3.42 trillion ­ and means Japan still boasts one of the world’s strongest armed forces.

Outside of Japan’s conservative establishment, Japanese have mixed feelings about where they’re going militarily. A poll conducted by Kyodo, the Japanese news agency, shows the Japanese split nearly evenly over revising the constitution so their troops can operate as full-fledged allies of the U.S. Slightly more than half of those polled don’t want to revise Article 9. Three fourths of them credit adoption of the constitution 70 years ago with keeping Japan out of war.

The Izumo represents more than its role with U.S. warships. It’s 249 meters long but called a “destroyer” ­ a euphemism for its purpose as a carrier big enough for a dozen or so helicopters on its deck. In case of war, the Izumo could be converted into a small jet aircraft carrier ­ not nearly as big as China’s newly launched Shandong, 50,000 tons and 315 meters long, but a sign of Japan’s eagerness to buttress defenses while rightists talk darkly of “the changing security environment” created by North Korea and China.

One reason Japanese are disposed to work with Americans on defense is they have no good friends in the region. At U.S. urging, Japanese and South Korean warships may cooperate in exercises, but historical differences go too deep to imagine an alliance. The Japanese are not going to agree the rocks they call Takeshima belong to Korea, which clings tenaciously to Dokdo as a symbol of defiance of the centuries of Japanese depredations.

Nor are the Japanese on great terms with Russia despite Abe’s recent meeting with President Vladimir Putin.

“Why did Abe fly to Moscow to talk to Putin when North Korea is making trouble,” a Japanese friend asked me. The two may agree North Korea should not test nukes, but who thinks the Russians will cede those small “northern islands” seized from Japan in the last week of World War II? In the Great Game for the region, Japan’s real fear is isolation.

Donald Kirk has been covering tensions in Northeast Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.