Japan Signals Shift Away From Long-Term Pacifism

Japan has forfeited the right to war since the end of WWII, and hasn’t sent military aid to any country since. But within a week of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, they had shipped equipment to the frontlines. The dramatic change could signal a broader shift in Japan’s defence status.

Japan’s constitution contains the infamous Article 9, which formally renounces the country’s right to war and forswears using military force to settle disputes. As a result, Japan has not sent troops or even equipment to countries in need for 75 years.

Just days after Putin’s invasion, when Ukraine asked Japan for materiel including antitank weapons, ammunition, and bulletproof vests, many dismissed the request as futile. But within a week, Japan’s government revised its regulations around military expenses, and sent bulletproof vests and helmets shortly after.

Of course, these supplies may seem like nothing next to the scale of arms sent by US and European powers. But for Japan, they represent a decisive step away from its pacifist identity.

Even economically, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government has been more forceful. In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, Japan was hesitant with sanctions, passing a more limited set of measures than the US. This time around, sanctions came much faster and harder, in line with America and Europe.

Japan recently expelled eight Russian diplomats and announced an imminent ban on Russian coal. Imports including timber, vodka, and machinery have also been restricted. Last week hundreds of people and organisations were added to Japan’s list of Russian sanctions. Tokyo also announced it would freeze assets of Sberbank and Alfa Bank – Russia’s two largest banks.

Japan’s policy towards Ukrainian refugees has also been a dramatic surprise – only 841 refugees have been accepted into the country since 1982.

Observers believe this is in line with an ongoing shift in Japanese policy around defence. As Motoko Rich reports for The New York Times, there’s a new recognition in Japan “that it must bolster its own deterrent power, rather than simply relying on its alliance with the United States to protect it or its interests in Asia.”

There are growing calls among Japanese lawmakers – from across the political spectrum – for an increased defence budget. At the end of last year, a record increase in military spending was announced. Politicians are using the war in Ukraine to ramp up military rhetoric further. Japan’s defence minister pressed again for drastically increased military spending this month.

Still, Japan has good reason to be more proactive militarily now. The eastern edges of Russian territory lie only 40 kilometres away from the tip of Hokkaido. And it’s been locked in a territorial dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands (known in Japan as the Northern Territories) for decades.

Japan also competes with China for influence in the Pacific. It has good reason to be worried about its potential role in Chinese expansionism in the region. Any military conflict with Taiwan would surely draw Japan in, and it has its own dispute with China over sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

Between Russia to the north, China to the west, and the massive increase in missile testing in North Korea, it’s no surprise a remilitarised Japan could be on the horizon.

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