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Shinzo Abe: The Nationalist Against Collective Security

Sometimes death brings to life opportunities to do what we had previously failed to

Shinzo Abe, the longest serving prime minister of Japan (he led the country from 2012-2020), died on July 8, 2022, after he was shot by a gunman. The assassination, which took place near Osaka, Japan, as Abe was campaigning for party members, left Japan and its major allies in a state of shock. That shock did not limit the fulsome praise that they immediately heaped on him, however, for allegedly having—inclusive of other things—revived the nation’s economy, strengthened its international ties, and returned it to the status of a “normal” country. The praise was not merited, if one compares Abe’s achievements against what Japan and the world lost, during his second tenure in office (in 2006 he served for a short time as prime minister), and what the prospect of that loss holds for Japan and for our collective future.

First, in the economic area, Abe did not succeed in regaining for Japan, as the thought he could, the creative and cutting-edge technology that defined his country’s economy during the 1980s and early 1990s. Neither did that economy succeed in his much-advertised “womenomics” program--a policy plan that has had as its goal a radical increase of women in the overwhelmingly, male-dominated business and government of Japanese society. Launched as an off-setting boost to Japan’s declining population and adult labor force, to the extent the plan has had some success, that success has been but moderate. Japan, when Abe left office, had become the world’s most indebted nation.

Second, Abe sought to strengthen Japan’s international ties. Here he had some demonstrable successes, in augmenting ties with Australia, India, and the U.S. He did, likewise, with some African countries (especially in West Africa), along with others in Southeast Asia. With China, Russia, and South Korea, however, relations remained the same or actually deteriorated. In the case of Russia, for example, diplomatic efforts to resolve the sovereign claim to the Kuril Islands were frustrated; the relations with China more and more became strained, as Tokyo drifted closer and closer toward Washington, in the latter’s focus on containing Beijing, economically, technologically, and militarily. And, in the case of South Korea, despite some surface appearance to the contrary, relations largely remained the same: tense.

Where Abe had some unquestionable “success” is in the area of “national security,” as the term is conventionally understood. But is Japan actually any more secure, today, on account of Abe’s constitutional actions, than it was, in the pre-Abe period of the country’s international relations?

In 1947, two years after the adoption of the U.N. Charter, the central purpose of which is “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” Japan approved what has come to be called its “peace constitution”. The latter, in article 9 (consistent with the U.N. Charter), states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” Paragraph 2 of the same article goes on to say that, in order to give effect to the terms of the preceding paragraph, “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained”; and it continues, the “right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” In short, article 9 forbids Japan from using force to settle disputes it may have with other countries and from maintaining any military capacity to do so.

Article 9 goes further, than any other constitutional provision of any other country, in seeking to give form to the UN’s ideal to abolish war. As such, this article, for Japan, was not only a badge of honor, after having had to face changes of war crimes and crimes against humanity after World War II, but a statement of solidarity with human beings who, it contends, “have the right to live in peace.” That peace may be secured, not by military alliances, but through collective security provided under the UN Charter.The article also made Japan a moral example, the behavior of which under said article, other countries could emulate. Likewise, Japan could develop friendly relations with most, if not all, countries worldwide.

Beginning in 2014, through some legislative maneuvers, Abe initiated a series of steps designed to “reinterpret” article 9, so that Tokyo could go to the aid of allies, as a form of “collective defense.” The country which, until the end of the twentieth century, found it difficult to engage in general UN peacekeeping operations, because doing so could violate its constitution, was now thinking of openly creating branches of the armed forces—each of which, under article 9, should “never be maintained.” By the time Abe left office, although not successful in getting rid of article 9, Abe had quietly helped to develop the world’s sixth most powerful army. In 2022, Japan joined Australia, India, and the U.S. in launching what is now called the “QUAD Alliance,” to ensure the security of the Indo-Pacific region.

The praise for Abe, referred to in the first paragraph, is because--in the thinking of those who call themselves realists, balance of power advocates, or conservatives (like Abe’s father who celebrated military glory and thought a state without an armed force is not “normal”), as well as the “war party” in Washington--no state can be normal without the right to go to war. Japan, under Abe, was being normalized. To be normal, a state must not only retain the right to go to war, but must always be in the process of preparing and gaining readiness to fight one. Abe’s effort to “normalize” Japan will not only increase anxieties among countries that recall Tokyo’s military aggression, among other things, during World War II, but, as well, the consequences of its imperial conduct before and during that war.

Article 9 and its ideals have not yet been repealed, however, and so, there is still a chance, a slight chance (in the light of the QUAD Alliance—and readers should know there is considerable reluctance to call it an alliance), the momentum Abe had developed toward that repeal can be reversed. Without doubt, his successors, along with their external partners, will be trying to extend further and complete the work begun by Abe. The ideals of article 9 concerns not only Japan, but all human beings, each of whom is entitled to the right to life and the right to live in peace. It represents the spiritual and legal embodiment of our collective yearning for peace. The loss (repeal) of this article would mean the defeat of Japan’s statement of honor to the world; the triumph over the boldest national, constitutional commitment against the plague of war; and the re-substitution for Japan of the culture of war, instead of the culture of peace, as the normal culture for that country and, by implication, for all states.

Abe’s death should spur all of us, who see war as social and moral obscenity, to work toward the defeat of the spirit that he embodied in life; to give renewed vitality to article 9; and to follow the Japanese people’s example to take bold steps to help convert the UN into a federal body that can ensure the security of all nations and preside over the abolition of war among its members.