Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on Article 9 and the anti-war protests of contemporary Japan.
By Shatrunjay Mall.
Japan’s devastating defeat in World War II led many ordinary Japanese people to develop a general antipathy and aversion to war and militarism. Pacifism was enshrined in the famous Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which states that Japan “forever renounce(s) war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” Although the post-war Japanese constitution was authored by progressive-minded Americans during the U.S. occupation of the Japanese archipelago (1945-1952), Japanese people embraced the peace constitution as their own. Japan became a cradle for a large-scale anti-nuclear weapons and anti-war movement. Following the U.S. involvement in the Korean War, Japan created a Self-Defense Forces in 1954, with American encouragement, but the country has not engaged in direct military conflict since 1945. Some scholars credit Japan’s lower military spending for the country’s economic miracle, which led to it becoming the world’s second largest economy by 1968, a position that it would maintain until it was eclipsed by China in 2010. However, even as Japan has not engaged in military conflict, it is still under the U.S. security umbrella. Japanese national security is guaranteed by the United States and its military, which has numerous military bases across the country, most notably in the islands of Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture. With its own Self-Defense Forces, and with the widespread presence of U.S. military bases, Japan cannot be described – despite Article 9 and its long post-war pacifist tradition – as a country that has irresolutely abjured war and militarism.
Indeed, recent years have seen Japan lay an increased focus on military and defense, as it has moved away from pacifism. The most blatant example of this transition away from pacifism was the Security Legislation passed in 2015 during the premiership of the recently assassinated former prime minister Shinzō Abe. This security legislation would allow Japan to engage in collective self-defense on behalf of its allies i.e., the United States. Passing this legislation allowed Abe and his government to reinterpret the Japanese Constitution and especially Article 9, and thereby bypass the need to amend it – something which had been a long-term goal of theirs, but which they had not succeeded at accomplishing. In a society like Japan’s where opposition to war was so deeply embedded in the public sphere, this piece of legislation was very controversial for supposedly being in violation of the peace clause of Japan’s Constitution. Abe’s security legislation galvanized a new generation of anti-war protesters in contemporary Japan, leading to some of the largest anti-war demonstrations in the country in over fifty years.
Protests rocked Japan through the summer and fall of 2015, in the run-up to, and in the aftermath of the passing of the Security Legislation. An organization that gained particular attention for its role in the anti-security legislation protests was SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy), which was created in May 2015 by a group of student activists to oppose the excesses of Abe’s government and its legislations. Protests in front of the National Diet Building in Tokyo attracted as many as 120,000 people.
However, the anti-militarism movement in Japan is too widespread to be encapsulated by a single protest movement like the anti-security legislation protests and a specific organization like SEALDs. To get a fuller picture of anti-war movements in Japan today, it is necessary to focus on regions especially affected by Japan’s close ties with the U.S. military, like Okinawa, which is an epicenter for anti-war protests in Japan. Although it is less than 1% of Japan’s land surface, Okinawa has more than 70% of its U.S. military installations. There have been protests against U.S. military bases in Okinawa since the 1950s, as in other parts of Japan, but anti-base protests in Okinawa acquired a renewed focus during recent years amidst efforts to move the existing U.S. military base in a heavily residential area in Futenma to the less populated Henoko Bay. There were various social and environmental objections against this move more specifically, and against Okinawa continuing to bear the burden of Japan’s obligations under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty more broadly. It remains to be seen how Japan and Okinawa will continue to navigate this discrepancy leading to the heavy militarization of the beautiful Okinawan islands. Despite rhetoric calling for a greater balance to the unequal burden that Okinawa bears, little has changed over the years, and the U.S. military remains an overwhelming presence in Okinawa. In 2022, fifty years after Okinawa’s official return to Japan in 1972, protests continue against the noise pollution, environmental damage, accidents, and crime that mark this military presence on the islands.
Northeastern Asia remains a dangerous place, marked by poor diplomatic relations among Japan, China, South Korea, and North Korea. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program remains a continuing flashpoint, as does any effort by the People’s Republic of China to forcibly take over the self-governing island of Taiwan, which unofficially maintains close ties to Japan. Further, Japan-Russia relations are another area of possible contention, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has led to Japan siding even more strongly with the United States and NATO. It is these geopolitical issues that have motivated many of the changes in Japan’s defense and security policies. Most recently, Japan’s ruling party, the LDP, has called for an increase of defense spending to 2% of the country’s GDP, a doubling from the current cap. Anti-war protests in Japan will need to navigate these potential future changes in Japan’s security architecture. They will need to work through fears and insecurities within Japan about these issues, as they fight to preserve Article 9 and pursue non-violent solutions to geopolitical and global issues, to promote amity and understanding between Japan and its neighbors.
 John Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 474.
 “The Constitution of Japan,” Prime Minister of Japan and his Cabinet. Accessed on July 18, 2022.
 Dower, Embracing Defeat, 398.
 Ibid., 199.
 Justin McCurry, “Okinawa rejects new US military base but Abe vows to push on,” The Guardian, February 24, 2019.
 Adam P. Liff, “Japan’s Security Policy in the “Abe Era”: Radical Transformation or Evolutionary Shift?”, Texas National Security Review 1:3 (May 2018): 13.
 Linda Sieg, “Abe’s mission unaccomplished: pushing to revise Japan’s pacifist charter,” Reuters, November 12, 2019.
 David Slater, Robin O’Day, Satsuki Uno, Love Kindstrand and Chiharu Takano, “SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy): Research Note on Contemporary Youth Politics in Japan,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 13, no. 1 (September 14, 2015).
 Kiyoshi Takenaka, “Huge protest in Tokyo rails against PM Abe’s security bills,” Reuters, August 30, 2015.
 Jeff Kingston, “SEALDs: Students Slam Abe’s Assault on Japan’s Constitution,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 13, no. 1 (September 7, 2015).
 “Okinawa’s US Military Base Burden Little Changed Since Reversion 50 Years Ago,” Nippon.com, May 25, 2022.
 Olivia Tasevski, “Okinawa’s vocal anti-US military base movement,” The Interpreter – Lowy Institute, February 17, 2022.
 Mari Yamaguchi, “Okinawa marks 50 years of end to US rule amid protests,” Associated Press, May 15, 2022.
 Yuki Yamaguchi, “Okinawa stages peace march ahead of 50th anniversary of return to Japan,” The Japan Times, May 14, 2022.
 “Japan’s ruling LDP asks gov’t to double defense budget,” Kyodo News, April 27, 2022.