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For video footage of protests over U.S. military bases on Okinawa, view a Reuters report from April 25, 2010.


Background Essay

Postwar Japanese Attitudes toward War and Peace and toward the United States
by Ted Gilman

Japan is the only country against which nuclear weapons have ever been launched. The two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki toward the end of World War II killed more than 150,000 Japanese. This devastating experience – after years of brutal war in Asia and the Pacific – is often cited as a reason for the Japanese acceptance of the U.S.-imposed postwar Constitution that prohibits Japan from rebuilding its armed forces. However, after decades of existence under the umbrella of American security, the debate about Japan's "peace constitution," American bases, and remilitarization has emerged and intensified.

In 1947, the United States (and its allies) drafted and imposed a new Constitution on Japan. In addition to installing a more democratic governance system than had existed during the war, the Constitution included Article 9, which states:

"Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized."

While postwar Japanese governments interpreted this to mean that Japan could maintain defensive forces to counter and deter attacks, Japan does not have the capacity to launch offensive military strikes beyond its borders.

Japanese acceptance of the postwar Constitution stems largely from a long-standing opposition to war and military conflict in certain segments of the population. Indeed, Japan's long history of domestic armed conflict through its early centuries sparked the creation of anti-militarist groups and political parties in the early 20th century. It is difficult to generalize about Japanese attitudes toward war and peace, as conflict over these issues is a recurrent theme in modern Japanese history.

The Japanese have debated the nation's right to have a military throughout the postwar period. The public focus on this issue was strongest in the 1950s and again in the 2000s. In the 1950s, conservative elements in Japan argued for the nation to ally with the United States as a way to ensure its security. Left-wing groups maintained that Japan should join the Soviet Union and/or China in opposition to America. A third domestic perspective urged Japan to join the nonaligned nations in a neutral stance, avoiding commitment to either superpower. At times it was unclear which path Japan would choose.

Throughout the debate, Japanese citizens have been interested in – and accepting of – cultural imports from the United States (and elsewhere). Drawing a clear distinction between military influence and cultural influence, the Japanese have been far more unified in their appetite for American cultural elements. This interest in culture has persisted regardless of the prevailing attitudes toward security affairs.

High Growth Focus
When the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan came before the Japanese Diet (the national legislature) for ratification in 1960, it sparked large protests in the streets of Tokyo. Opponents demonstrated in front of the Diet, but the treaty was approved by the legislators and remains in force to this day. Many Japanese support the treaty as a way to avoid the remote possibility of a return of an imperialist Japan. Moreover, Japan has generally spent less than one percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) annually on defense, which has allowed the country to allocate resources toward other policy areas.

The year 1960 was a turning point in postwar Japan. If the 1950s were a time of debate about security and foreign affairs, the 1960s were a decade of consensus and focus on economic growth. Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato put forth a plan to double Japan’s income in ten years; instead, Japan's GNP tripled during the decade! Economic growth and prosperity drew public attention away from security and pushed the issue of American bases into the background for most Japanese.

Okinawa Reversion and the Cold War
Japan's focus on economic growth started to moderate in the early 1970s. First, the expansion of Japan’s economy saddled numerous communities with serious pollution and environmental problems. Grassroots movements pushed these issues into the public eye and forced the Diet to enact laws regulating pollution. Second, the U.S. returned Okinawa to Japanese administrative control. Though Japan once again governed the island, American military bases still maintained a high profile presence in Okinawa.

Most Japanese supported the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty at this time. It was the height of the Cold War, China emerged from its isolation and joined the United Nations, and East Asia seemed like a dangerous place to live without a strong military. Japan's economy was heavily dependent on oil, and most petroleum sources were located far from Japan. The alliance with the U.S. ensured reliable access to energy, which made most Japanese willing to tolerate the American military presence in Okinawa (and elsewhere).

Okinawa's strategic position in the western Pacific Ocean made it an ideal location for American forces. Military strategists saw Okinawa as part of the "unsinkable aircraft carrier" that was Japan. Most Japanese agreed with this perspective and focused on the benefits of the alliance rather than on the costs.

End of the Cold War
The fall of the Berlin Wall in1989 signaled the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Though Japan's neighbors still seemed threatening, by the mid-1990s the issue of American military bases was increasingly in the public eye in Japan. In 1994 the Daily Yomiuri newspaper published a draft for a new constitution. This was a watershed event that signaled a return to the discussion of Japanese remilitarization and revision of the constitution.

A decade later the Liberal Democratic Party, Japan's leading political party, published a draft constitution. Other political parties, news organizations, and civic groups have since proposed their own versions of a revised Japanese constitution. While there is widespread public support for the desire to amend certain parts of the constitution (especially Article 9), there is no agreement on precisely what that change should look like.

While debate over constitutional revision continues, opposition to American military bases in Okinawa increases. U.S. forces have behaved in ways that strengthened opposition to their presence. For example, in 1995 three American servicemen raped a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa. This event triggered large anti-base protests in Okinawa. Though the crime occurred off of a U.S. military base, the U.S. was slow to hand the perpetrators over to Japanese law enforcement authorities for prosecution.

Japan and Its Neighbors
Japan's increasingly strong economic ties with China have boosted Japanese public feelings of security in the post-Cold War era. Japanese companies have invested heavily in China, and the sense of economic interdependence makes it less likely that China would take military action against Japan. Other players in the region – especially South Korea and Taiwan – have shared in the economic growth and seem less likely to engage in militaristic behavior. Japan, China, Taiwan, and South Korea are far more economically connected than they were twenty years ago, and an outbreak of hostilities would be damaging to all. As such, Japan's public sees a decreased need for an American military presence on Japanese soil.

The biggest threat to Japan in the region is North Korea, but the North Koreans struggle to feed their own population. The Japanese worry far less about North Korea than they did a decade ago. Moreover, Japan keeps deterrent diplomatic pressure on North Korea by coordinating closely with the U.S., China, Russia, and South Korea. Communication and information-sharing are better now than they were during the Cold War.

Cultural Affinity
Though Japanese attitudes toward the security relationship with America change over time, Japan's appreciation of American culture remains consistently strong. From commercial aspects of Christmas (and other holidays) to consumer products, sports, and films, Japanese people have an enduring appetite for things American. American jazz music became popular in Japan immediately following the war, and fashion followed soon thereafter. These cultural imports are sometimes modified to fit Japanese tastes and preferences, but such imports always reflect their origins outside Japan.

In sum, Japan's wartime experience, economic interdependence with its neighbors, and the end of the Cold War have created an environment in which Japan feels steadily more secure. A majority of Japanese believe it is time to revise their constitution, though they do not agree on the form that revision should take. While they debate this democratically, American bases in Okinawa continue to generate opposition in the Japanese public. And American cultural imports continue to be popular with a large percentage of the Japanese population.


About the Author

Theodore (Ted) Gilman is the Associate Director of the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University. He was a tenured member of the Political Science Department at Union College for ten years before coming to Harvard, where he taught courses on Japanese politics, East Asian international relations, and urban politics. He has published a book entitled No Miracles Here: Fighting Urban Decline in Japan and the United States (2001).


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