The Japanese scholar, sometime diplomat, and current policy advisor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued that Japan would not return to militarism as his nation sought to forge a new defense posture and to make the U.S.-Japan alliance more effective.

Addressing the East-West Center in Honolulu, Shinichi Kitaoka asserted that “Japan will never become a military power again.” He contended that would be “unthinkable” because the reasons Japan went down a militaristic path from 1931 to 1945 no longer existed.

Instead, Kitaoka insisted, Prime Minister Abe’s plans to reinterpret Japan’s constitution to permit collective defense, to establish a national security council, and to publish Tokyo’s first national security strategy were intended only to exercise the sovereign right of self-defense.

But neither Kitaoka, who was Japan’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations 2004-2006, nor other advisers to the prime minister nor the drafters of a new U.S.-Japan defense agreement signed earlier this month have confronted two towering obstacles, one internal, the other external, to their plans:

  • Internally, many Japanese — or their parents or grandparents — who recall the misery and devastation that was the consequence of Japan’s militaristic ventures in the last century are skeptical or suspicious of Abe’s call for new defensive measures. That has been compounded by deep-seated pacifism in Japan.
  • Externally, China and Korea have fired one barrage after another at Abe and his call for improved Japanese defenses. Both have demanded that the Japanese acknowledge their earlier transgressions but the Chinese have been understated while the South Koreans have been emotional to bordering on irrational.

Several Korean legislators issued a statement reflecting widespread Korean sentiment: “Given no sufficient repentance over its past atrocities and no sufficient compensation for them, Japan seeking to become a military power under the pretext of self-defense would give a deep scar to neighboring countries that suffered from Japan’s past aggression.”

Curiously, South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-Hye, has been outspoken in her demand that Japan face up to “the history question,” meaning Japan’s 35 year rule of Korea that ended in 1945. Yet her father, the late President Park Chung-Hee, was a young officer in the Japanese Imperial Army in Manchuria, then a Japanese colony.

In his remarks, Kitaoka said Japan embarked on conquest in the last century to expand its markets and because Japan saw its enemies as weak. He said the international community lacked punitive sanctions and Japan’s political leaders could not control its military forces. The lack of free speech in Japan also contributed.

Kitaoka, who sits on several advisory panels advising Prime Minister Abe, contended those factors “do not apply to today’s Japan.”

Instead, he said, the Abe government would have a national security council in place and a new outline of defense planning adopted by the end of this year.

In contrast, Kitaoka pointed to China, asserting that Beijing has moving down the same road as Japan earlier as it escalates its maritime actions and seems confident that China’s forces could prevail in Asia. He argued that China has no fear of international sanctions and was using its economic power to silence critics in other nations.

Moreover, he questioned the capacity of the Communist Party to control the People’s Liberation Army, which encompasses all of China’s military forces. (U.S. officers with access to intelligence reports have raised similar questions.) And Kitaoka said it was difficult for Chinese to speak out against their government.

Meantime, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera of Japan joined with Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to issue a communiqué in which the U.S. ”welcomed Japan’s determination to contribute more proactively to regional and global peace and security.”

In the most forthright affirmation of the U.S.-Japan alliance seen in years, the U.S. “reiterated its commitment to collaborate closely with Japan.” Kerry and Hagel applauded Abe’s plans to assert Japan’s right to collective self-defense, to expand its defense budget, and to strengthen defense of sovereign territory.

In particular, the ministers agreed that the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, last revised in 1997, would be brought up to date, given the changes in Asia in recent years, notably the emergence of Chinese power and the threat of nuclear attack by North Korea.

In sum, the Japanese and Americans agreed on where they want to go but not on how to get there over the vehement objections of some in the Japanese public and many in China and Korea.

About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth