Helping yourself to help others

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is knocking on history’s doors and is trying to update the country’s sacrosanct Article 9 for modern times. Like many others before him, Abe is working out a way to circumvent the pacifist constitutional limits and have Japan send troops in support of the US’ interests, especially in the latter’s war on terror.

But what really gives ? In the past, Japan has been criticized for not contributing enough to secure peace and has let its money do the talking. While now that Japan’s finances are not as robust as it were during the 80s and 90s, it looks like that the country cannot rely on its soft power for long.

Japan’s stunted participation in any martial endeavors in the world makes sense in lenses of the past — Article 9, and World War II.

Article 9 is consistently interpreted as binding Japan not to maintain a full fledged army (hence the ungainly Self-Defense Force (SDF) tag) and the renouncement of war as a sovereign right of the people. Understandably, the public is infuriated with anything that involves Japanese soldiers fighting wars, possibly because they see sacrificial lambs for the interests of other developed nations; or because it harkens back to the horrors and destruction that the country suffered during the last world war.

A militarized Japan is not a welcome sight, at least diplomatically, for the majority of Asian countries, especially those who were colonized during the war. Even if the war happened half a century ago, there are still issues as alive as burning embers — comfort women, textbook revisions, visits to Yasukuni.

But how long shall this Asia-wide view persist ? At the risk of sounding unreasonable, shall we opine that people are incapable of change, that it safe to posit that past trends/behaviors continue to persist until the present ?

But more than just a debate on Article 9, it is the complacency that Japan has devolved into, that is really disturbing.

It still mainly relies on manufacturing industries to carry its economy, even though its advantage is eroding fast. Japanese students studying abroad has steadily fallen in the past 7 consecutive years.

Would leaving Article 9 intact, as it is originally interpreted, a sign of holding on too long to some outdated role, consigning Japan, again to the realm of the past ?

Equally compelling is the argument against changing Article 9. The most obvious is the weight of Japan’s WWII legacy. Citizens, especially baby boomers, remember the horror of the US’ twin atomic bombings at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. They would not want that happening again. Understandably, this sentiment is extended to the spectre of sending the JSDF to combat missions. These are Japanese men and women who are laying their lives not for their country’s sake but for others’ —Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan. That maybe how the population sees it. It might be interpreted that moving to change Article 9 is an accommodation of the developed nations’ (i.e. mostly Western nations) national interests rather than ideologies of peace and collaborative capitalism that the current Japan espouses.

Which leads us to question, does Japan really want to accept a greater international role ? Does it even want it ?

Maybe. But in a more ideal context.

Abe has to breathe life into the stagnant economy first before moving on to other interests. It’s like what is said in inflight safety videos — “If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.”