“Let the Nightmare for Japan Begin”: How the Islamic State May Provoke Japan into Premature Rearmament

“Let the Nightmare for Japan Begin.” Those are the words spoken by the Islamic militant known as Jihadi John just before the gruesome murder of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto last month. A video recording of Goto’s execution circulated amongst international audiences, and sparked anger throughout a shocked Japanese populace. Kunihiko Miyake, president of Tokyo’s Foreign Policy Institute and former high-level Japanese diplomat, compared the public outrage to the U.S. domestic response to September 11th. Never before had Japanese citizens been targeted in terrorist attacks of this nature, and the “stark savagery” of the Islamic State acted as a wake-up call for the nation. Forced to face the harsh realities of a world in which security against non-state actors is not a guarantee, pacifistic Japan is beginning to realize that its “goodwill and noble intentions” will not serve to protect against the global threat of terrorism.

Image courtesy of U.S. Pacific Fleet, © 2014, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of U.S. Pacific Fleet, © 2014, some rights reserved.

But, the nightmare that Japan may face in the coming months will not depend solely upon impending terrorist attacks upon the nation. Rather, it is the exaggeration and overreaction to these events that may lead Japanese foreign policy down a dark and dangerous road. Turning away from Japan’s post-World War II pacifism may have irrevocable and drastic consequences. How Tokyo chooses to respond to the threat of ISIS will certainly shape Japan’s future role in global affairs. As such, Japan’s leaders should carefully consider the consequences of confronting the Islamic State head-on. By making further and more direct commitments to the global war on terrorism, Japan may overstep its defensive position and assume responsibilities that it is not prepared to take on.

Whereas the United States has guaranteed Japan’s security against traditional security threats in the post-World War II period, new challenges that were not anticipated at the drafting of Article 9 in Japan’s constitution now confront the international system. Legally prohibited from “maintain[ing]…war potential,” or “us[ing] force as a means of settling international disputes,” Japan is rendered quite vulnerable to non-traditional threats, such as terrorism, that were not as relevant to national security seventy years ago. Now, “no country is completely safe from terrorism,” and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe identifies transnational terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State as posing a threat unlike any that Japan has faced before. Thus, the shield of American protection looks much flimsier to Japanese audiences in the defence against ISIS.

Domestic audiences are already beginning to push proposals for increased national security, and many have expressed support for “new legislation to give Japan’s tightly constrained military more freedom to act overseas.” Shinzo Abe has expressed his views favouring the revision of Article 9 to move away from “defensive defense” policies to an approach that may put Japan on the offensive against threats such as that posed by ISIS. Since his re-election this past December, Abe has been working to build popular support for a reconsideration of constitutional provisions regarding the use of force, and the recent attack claiming Mr. Goto’s life may provide a useful catalyst for change. In response to the ISIS threat, Abe has asserted that “Japan must play a part in…put[ting] a stop to extremism.” Although Abe may capitalize upon nationalistic fervour and patriotic sentiment to gain popular support, he should be wary of the direction this might lead. Retaliation in the form of bold or rash action against ISIS may imply that Japan is now willing to shed its “peaceful and prosperous” image in exchange for one that is more assertive and coercive.

However, Japan is still a neo-mercantilist nation, and derives power from its economic, rather than military, strength. Joseph Nye, a prominent American scholar, discusses Japan’s potential rise to great power status in his influential book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. He argues that Japan has the economic strength and national cohesion necessary to exert larger degrees of influence within the international community, but that these qualities are altogether insufficient to guarantee the nation’s security. Japan is lacking in basic natural resources, and is therefore unlikely to translate its economic power into a military force that can counter future threats. Still, Nye acknowledges that Japan may choose to abandon its pacifist foreign policy should Tokyo feel that it can no longer rely upon an American security guarantee.

Not only is Japan inherently disadvantaged in the face of security threats, especially those posed by ISIS, but the nation is also placed in a delicate position in regards to its regional standing. It is unlikely that other states in the Asia-Pacific—most notably China—will accommodate an aggressive Japan, as the region still remembers the hostility and incursion characteristic of Japan’s imperial past. Rearmament might stir regional rivalries at a time when cooperation and collective action are imperative in confronting the terrorist threat. A more direct and offensive approach may therefore obstruct any potential for collaboration between Japan and its neighbours in the fight against ISIS, which in turn would be counterintuitive in providing for the security of not only Japan, but all Asian nations.

Japan therefore finds itself in a precarious situation. Although domestic audiences may justify more aggressive policies with the need to defend national pride and reinforce security, the nation’s leaders must consider the serious consequences of taking a stronger stance against ISIS. At present, Japan is not prepared to confront transnational security threats on its own. Even if it was, other states in the international system would not be ready to allow it to assume a more threatening role. Japan should continue to work within its current pacifist role to cooperate with the United States and other nations in the global fight against terrorism.

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