The Magazine

Japan’s New Islands?

Nationalism makes a comeback.

Jul 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 43 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Earlier this year, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara took time out from presiding over the world’s largest city to initiate a fundraising drive. It wasn’t his own campaign coffers that Ishihara was seeking to fill—campaign spending is severely limited in Japan, anyway. Rather, the famously nationalistic (some say jingoistic) governor began a drive to purchase three of the five islands that make up the Senkakus, which are claimed by China, Taiwan, and Japan. A chain of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, the Senkakus are primarily valued for their fisheries and possible stores of oil.

Senkaku Islands

The Senkaku Islands

Ishihara announced his intentions in April at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, revealing that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government was already in negotiations with the islands’ owners to purchase them (they are privately owned by Japanese citizens). Shortly thereafter, Ishihara appealed for private funding to complete the purchase. The governor’s campaign has already netted more than $12 million in donations from Japanese citizens, and also spurred a flotilla of 14 privately helmed Japanese ships that sailed to the Senkakus in June, boasting signs such as “Chinese invasion of the Senkaku Islands will not be permitted!”

Unsurprisingly, Ishihara’s provocations have raised the ire of Beijing; in mid-July, the Chinese dispatched three fishery patrol boats to the Senkakus (which they call the Diaoyu Islands). The Global Times, a tabloid newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist party, helpfully suggested that the Chinese military use the islands as a shooting range.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Ishihara’s campaign also raised hackles in Official Japan, resulting in what the Financial Times termed an “unheard of public rebuke from Japan’s ambassador in Beijing.” (The ambassador warned of a “grave crisis.”) Japanese business leaders, too, are wary of alienating the Chinese—understandable, given that Japan invests more than $7 billion in China annually, and that China represents a huge market for Japanese products. So, there are powerful institutions in Japan with a vested interest in tamping down their country’s assertiveness towards China. But the biggest impediment to a more forceful Tokyo remains Article 9 of Japan’s post-World War II constitution, which prohibits any acts of war on the part of the Japanese state. Consequently, the Japanese military is known as the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and is barred from committing any acts of “bellicosity.”

Despite these strictures, Japan has been building impressive military capabilities for some time—all in the name of self-defense. The SDF was established in 1954, and has grown to encompass more than 240,000 personnel and an annual budget of almost $50 billion. The Council on Foreign Relations says that the Japanese Navy is “among the most sophisticated in the world.” Japan even deployed “reconstruction and support” troops to Iraq in 2003, and assisted in refueling efforts for U.S. troops conducting antiterrorism activities in and around Afghanistan for almost a decade.

But the constraints imposed by Article 9 are rankling a growing segment of the Japanese population. Earlier this year, a poll from the Yomiuri Shimbun, one of Japan’s biggest newspapers, found that “39 percent of respondents said they favored revising Article 9.” That was up 7 points from 2011. That finding actually understates the opposition to pacifism, because an additional 39 percent of respondents are open to a more assertive military—they just think that Article 9 should be “interpreted” differently. In the end, only a paltry 13 percent said that Article 9 should be “strictly interpreted to prevent Japan from participating in all foreign military operations.” Furthermore, the SDF is now the most popular institution in Japan. More than 91 percent of the population has a positive impression of the SDF—up from 81 percent three years ago. Support for the military as an institution is now at its highest level since the end of World War II.

These trends can be explained in one simple word: China. The People’s Republic quadrupled its military budget in the first decade of the 2000s, a fact evidently not lost on a growing chunk of the Japanese public. Thirty-two percent of the Japanese now view China as a “military threat” to their country—up from only 8 percent in 2001. Forty-nine percent, meanwhile, view China’s client state, North Korea, as a direct threat. More generally, 84 percent of the Japanese now have an “unfavorable” opinion of China; 70 percent cite “territorial issues” as the main reason. Another poll finds that 72 percent of the Japanese “don’t trust” China—a reasonable position, given not only the territorial disputes, but also Beijing’s propensity for deflecting the anger of its restive population of unmarriageable young men by whipping up violent anti-Japanese sentiment.

Back in 2007, then-prime minister Shinzo Abe used the sixtieth anniversary of the ratification of the postwar constitution to call for a “bold review of Japan’s postwar stance and an in-depth discussion of the constitution.” Abe’s tenure lasted less than a year, though, and no constitutional changes were made. Altering the constitution, after all, is hard: It requires two-thirds passage in both houses of the Diet, followed by a successful referendum. Changes are probably unlikely in the immediate future, too, given that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has a moribund economy, a nuclear disaster, and massive post-tsunami reconstruction on the country’s northeast coast to deal with.

But revisions to Article 9 certainly can’t be counted out, especially a few years from now. Given that the Japanese constitution was drawn up under the guidance of the occupying Allies, it doesn’t inspire the kind of reverence that, say, the American Constitution does. What’s more, experts on Japanese public opinion say that the younger generation is much more nationalistic and much less inclined towards pacifism than previous postwar generations of Japanese. 

There is also ample evidence that public opinion is already pushing the national government in a more aggressive direction, even without constitutional changes. This month, some three months after Ishihara’s initial provocation, Prime Minster Noda bowed to public pressure and declared that it is now the policy of the national (not just Tokyo) government to purchase the Senkakus. And that Japanese ambassador to China who condemned Ishihara’s plan to buy the islands? Members of the Diet have demanded he be fired, and last week he was recalled to Tokyo for “discussions.”

Ethan Epstein is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers