The National Interest
On July 1, 2014, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet engaged in a dramatic constitutional reinterpretation. Traditionally, Japan’s constitution had been read as imposing pacifism on the country: Japan could not engage in military force except in absolute self-defense. But under Abe’s new reading, the constitution would grant Japan the right to engage in collective self-defense—in other words, to come to the aid of allied forces under attack even if Japan itself is not targeted.
This update may seem minor when set alongside the robust military campaigns launched by other nations like the United States. But for Japan, Abe’s reinterpretation represents a significant shift away from the island-nation’s postwar pacifism—a shift that will have important and largely beneficial consequences for the U.S.-Japanese alliance. By the end of the year, the two states will release revised Guidelines for Defense Cooperation, which will build in part on Prime Minister Abe’s constitutional reinterpretation and update the framework that governs the U.S.-Japanese alliance in times of both peace and war.
In order to succeed, Abe will be forced to navigate between strategic and historical currents that often tug in opposite directions. Reconciling these competing forces is possible, but only if the Abe administration can convey to a skeptical public that collective self-defense aligns with Japan’s pacifist principles, rather than its militaristic past. For the most part, this debate will unfold domestically, but the United States should intervene on the margins by clarifying the strategic benefits of the reinterpretation for the alliance and by urging the Abe administration to shy away from historically revisionist rationales.
Picture: East Asia and Pacific Media Hub U.S. Department of State [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons