The new Japanese militarism


There is a new militarism afoot in Japan. Since the election of right-wing Prime Minister Shinzō Abe in 2012, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has raised Japan’s military budget annually. A prominent wing of the LDP, led by Abe, has articulated the goal of repealing Article 9 of the Japanese constitution and a doubling of Japanese military spending. Article 9 outlaws war as a means of dealing with international disputes in which the Japanese state is involved. It is a product both of U.S.-led efforts to shape post-World War II Japanese politics and of progressive pressures within postwar Japanese society.

The right’s efforts to increase military spending are not the only potential effect of a repeal of Article 9. Doing so would redefine not only the Japanese military into a more conventional war-waging machine but would have far-reaching implications for a broad shift to the right of Japanese society. The reasons for these developments are complex and are a result of three main factors: the protracted crisis of the Japanese economy since 1989, the U.S. “pivot to Asia” and developments in U.S. militarism and capitalism over the past decade, and historical ideological factors going back to early Japanese postwar society, which witnessed the emergence of a revolutionary workers’ movement, subsequently defeated by a collaboration of U.S. imperialism and Japanese capital.

Japanese postwar pacifism in crisis

Article 9 committed the postwar Japanese constitution to a policy of “pacifism” in the military arena. The armed forces are limited to a solely defensive role. The original intent of the United States was for Japan not to rearm at all; the postwar Japanese constitution, written by U.S.-appointed writers but also shaped by egalitarian and progressive pressures coming from Japanese society, outlawed the use of armed force. But with the emergence of the Cold War and the start of the Korean War, the U.S. decided to rearm Japan. In 1954, the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF) was formed.

Today, the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF) is one of the world’s largest militaries, fifth after those of the U.S., Russia, China, and India. It includes over 1000 tanks and 5000 armored vehicles, 250 fighter aircraft, 500 helicopters, four helicopter carriers, 37 destroyers, six corvettes, and 20 submarines. In concert with the U.S., Japan is developing anti-ballistic capabilities—for example, Aegis Combat System equipped warships.

These developments are echoed in the LDP’s revised platform under Abe and his successors. This includes a goal of doubling Japanese military spending. And Abe has also enacted new security laws to allow Japanese troops to fight in foreign countries, ended a ban on military exports, and has attempted to revise the constitution to allow missile strikes on other countries deemed enemies (such as North Korea and even China).

Why is Japan currently rearming?

The officially stated reasons for the new Japanese militarism include security concerns focusing on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and the rising power of China.

Uneasy relations between Japan and China are rooted in World War II, when Japan committed horrifying war crimes while occupying China. Increasing Chinese regional hegemony and military spending and tensions over sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have also played an important role. (Tensions with South Korea have a similar history to those with China and relate to Japanese occupation and war crimes). The Japanese right stokes fears of China cutting off East and South China Sea lanes, which they frame as existential threats.

The Japanese right has long had a history of anti-Chinese and anti-Korean racism, and this seems to be seeping into the mainstream of Japanese society, which in turn paves the way for introducing the new militarism with less resistance. According to a Reuters report from 31 October 2012: “In a survey of 1,696 people conducted by the Nikkei business daily at the end of last year, 86% of respondents said China posed a threat to Japan, more than the 82% who expressed concern about nuclear-armed North Korea.”

Japan felt regionally isolated during the “American First” Trump years, though it has returned to closer ties with the U.S. since Biden took office. Since the second Abe term as prime minister (December 2012 to Sept 2020), Japan has become more of a “regular ally” of U.S., and JSDF has become more of a conventional military, in what military observers have characterized as a “radical expansion” of JSDF’s operational scope. The Abe-Kishida governments have increased all branches of JSDF’s budget every year since 2014.

Ahead of the Fall 2021 elections, the ruling LDP included on its platform a goal of spending 2 percent of GDP, roughly $100 billion, on the military, double its annual expenditures. Traditionally, postwar Japanese governments have observed a one percent spending cap, seen as a reflection of Japanese pacifism. The LDP, a right-wing nationalist party, sees that as quaint and seeks to politically bludgeon liberals with a more militarist stance. Observers think the doubling won’t happen soon given the pandemic impact and the government’s debt crisis, but it does suggest what the orientation of the right’s future campaigns will be.

Politics of the Japanese right

The Japanese right is both institutionally dominant—its party, the LDP, has led Japanese governments almost continuously since the 1950s—and draws on an organized, shadow radical sector, as exemplified by the quasi-fascist Nippon Kaigi (Abe is a member of the latter). In service of the Japanese capitalist class, it venerates the emperor, attempts to whitewash Japan’s historic colonial crimes, deploys open racism—especially against Chinese and Koreans—and views any non-conformity with patriarchal, traditional gender roles as “destructive of the nation.” In particular, it is viciously opposed to Japan’s womens’ liberation movement and to any moves toward independent working-class organization.

Current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is more moderate than his predecessor Abe. He is less inclined to see postwar Japanese pacifism as an affront imposed by the U.S. Unlike the more right-wing Abe faction, he does not openly speak about his pride in what Abe calls Japan’s “war of liberation” in Asia. Yet he too has toed, albeit more quietly, the line on the new militarism of the LDP. Indeed, his acquiescence secured him the party leadership after Abe.

Notably, the Japanese Communist Party too has succumbed to opportunist pressures. While officially, the JCP views the JSDF as unconstitutional and calls for its abolition, party leader Kazuo Shii stated in Fall 2021 that, in reality, the JCP supports the deployment of Japanese soldiers “if Japan’s sovereignty were ever threatened.”

Protracted economic crisis

Japan has never recovered from the devastating 1989 stock market crash. It is now what economists call a “low-yield” economy, a far cry from its pre-1990 dynamism. GDP has grown negligibly over the past 30 years, and rarely does annual growth exceed 2 percent. National debt is 250 percent of GDP. Inequality has exploded. Over that time, it has watched nervously as China has meteorically risen to the status of regional hegemon and imperialist power in its own right. In 2010, China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy.

The government, dominated during the postwar era by the LDP, responded to the protracted crisis with deregulation. The result: 40 percent of the labor force now works on temporary contracts, a sea change from the lifetime employment guaranteed to the postwar generations up to 1990. Pensions, health coverage, and unemployment insurance have been slashed. A third of young people say they expect to work until they die.

In 2012, Abe became prime minister for the second time (his first stint was in 2006-2007) and began promising a “new era beyond the postwar era.”  Along with repeal of Article 9, his  platform included a host of security bills to undermine the constitution and major increases in military spending. In short, it was a reactionary bourgeois program offering an illusory resolution—militarism, smashing progressive opposition forces—to the crisis. It should be mentioned that the constitution, while a document imposed under military occupation, has notable progressive elements—such as citizenship equality regardless of race, ethnicity, or social status; civil rights for women for the first time in Japanese history; and rights to participate in trade unions.

Thus, the so-called constitutional reform movement has long been a right-wing project. Its objective is not only to make Japan a more aggressive military power but to change the character of Japanese society to reflect the traditionalist, patriarchal, and hierarchical imagined past of the Japanese right. Often called “the new nation” by these forces, it seeks among other things to rewrite the history of Japanese imperialism and war crimes, deploying anti-Korean and anti-Chinese racism in the process.

Finally, it is difficult to understand the rise of Abe and the Japanese far right in recent years without seeing it as anti-feminist backlash. Growing out of the Japanese New Left, the Japanese women’s liberation movement or Uman Ribu, launched in the 1970s and 80s powerful critiques of the intersections of colonialism, gender oppression, U.S. imperialism, and Japanese militarism and misogyny. Particularly galling to the right, they proposed internationalism as a central part of their egalitarian and progressive project. Since the 1990s, the right has obsessed over these “communist” women and their “destructive anti-national ideology.”

U.S. imperialism’s role

The main priority of the United States during the postwar period, especially after the communist revolution in China in 1949, was to keep Japan in the U.S.-dominated Western camp (significantly, in 1946 Japan almost joined the socialist camp). Defense and foreign policy were handed to the U.S., and the focus of postwar governments was on economic development with close ties to the West, though this too was ensnared in imperialist relations: Profits from Japanese consumer goods sold to the U.S. were used to purchase U.S. debt, especially during and after the 1980s (a practice later adopted by China). Large swathes of Japanese territory, especially the islands of Okinawa prefecture, were handed to the U.S. military. This has met with often furious resistance in Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan.

Crusading for a Cold War against the USSR and seeking an anticommunist bulwark against both the Soviets and China, Truman put a halt on the immediate postwar progressive movements in Japan. The CIA began to fund the LDP in the 1950s and has used them to smash socialist forces, both those under the powerful JCP and independent movements for working class self-organization. The LDP’s, and anticommunist conservatism’s, hegemony over postwar Japan was thus—as in many other parts of the world —a U.S.-funded and driven project.

The combativity of the postwar Japanese working class was central to the worries of the United States. In spite of the destruction, food shortages, and poverty of the immediate postwar period, the Japanese working class at this time often exhibited “great vibrancy and power.” This was a result both of a generalized sense of rebelliousness against living conditions and the early occupation’s policy of encouraging union participation as a way of stimulating economic growth.

Indeed, the period between 1945 and 1960 has been characterized as the highpoint of Japanese industrial unionism. It was, interestingly, revolts by Chinese forced laborers at the Mitsubishi Bibai coal mines and, subsequently, of Korean forced laborers at the Yubari coal mines on Hokkaido, that kick-started the postwar tradition of working-class self emancipation, one which would lead to demands such as production control by workers. Especially during the first nine months of postwar reconstruction, whether Japan would become socialist or capitalist was an open question, particularly in the revolutionary year of 1946.

It was the Supreme Command for Allied Powers (SCAP) that put an end to the revolutionary process. After 1946, Japanese working-class independence and self-confidence came under ferocious attack. It is estimated that there were about 50 production takeovers involving at least 30,000 workers per month in the spring of 1946. This fell to about 25 takeovers per month of between 5000 and 6000 workers by early 1947. SCAP took a firm position against production control by workers, with the right-wing Japanese government suppressing any moves in this direction and outlawing a general strike planned during that year. Japanese democracy would henceforth take on a constrained, managed character, to be guided by the “safe” (anticommunist, conservative) hands of Japanese capital and its main party, the LDP. 

 Tensions with China and North Korea escalated. Echoes of this anticommunist hegemony have been seen more recently. In the 1980s, a former prime minister described Japan as America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in a conversation with Ronald Reagan. In 2011, the U.S. “pivot to Asia,” away from the Middle East and toward the Asian Pacific, has, similarly, been rationalized as meeting the “threat” of China.

Indeed, as reported in Reuters in October 2021, under Biden, the U.S. has been pressuring its allies to spend more on defense. The LDP’s platform for an increase to 2 percent of GDP on military expenditures would thus put Japan in line with pledges by NATO members, Germany being the most prominent example. This would amount to an additional $50 billion a year, expenditures which would go to U.S. arms manufacturers. On the Japanese government’s wish list are F-35 stealth fighters, Osprey tilt-rotor utility aircraft, surveillance drones, stealth fighters, and long-range missiles. Japan would also domestically produce amphibious landing craft, compact warships, aircraft carriers, submarines, satellites, and communications gear. It  is also building up cyber, space, and electromagnetic warfare capabilities. All of this indicates plans to fight a protracted war.

Germany and Japan are also drawing closer, as both see China and Russia, increasingly, as threats. Indeed, demonization of China is shared by both the West and Japan, along with India. We can take the example of the Quadrilateral (U.S., Australia, Japan, India) Security Dialogue, or Quad, formed in 2007.  The “Quad” claims defensive lines at the borders of the PRC. Its participants conduct large-scale naval exercises within this perimeter and, while claiming to be for a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” the alliance is clearly intended to saber rattle against China. Indeed, here as ever, Japan’s role continues to be that of an “anticommunist bulwark,” regardless of the emptiness or otherwise of China’s claims to uphold socialism.

It should come as no surprise that Japanese remilitarization would increase demand from the US military-industrial complex. Biden’s head East Asia official is the founder of a think tank funded by Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, and Northrup Grumman, and is himself a recipient of hundreds of thousands of dollars from both Taiwanese and Japanese governments.


This brief look at recent developments in Japanese militarism shows the importance of combining ideological with political – economic analysis for Marxists. Japan’s new militarism is at the same time (1) a response to the protracted crisis and intensification of the social contradictions in Japan over the past thirty years; (2) a result of pressure from a U.S. imperialism in decline and more dependent on socially unproductive profit-seeking, exemplified by military rearmament of the globe; (3) a result of reactionary ideological factors with a long history in Japan: the resentment felt by the right at the postwar order, in particular the pacifist and relatively progressive constitution, but also against the social forces—the postwar workers’ movements and social movements that emerged during the New Left.

The crises of Japanese capitalism and U.S. imperialism have prepared the way for an illusory far right “resolution” of the crisis, exemplified by the patriarchal and racist politics of the LDP. It is only by rebuilding a combative Japanese workers’ movement, like the one that nearly took power in the immediate postwar years, that a truly emancipatory vision for Japanese society be realized.

Photo: Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters


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