Last Tuesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet approved a reinterpretation of the country's pacifist postwar constitution that will allow the military to help defend allies and others "in a close relationship" with Japan under what is known as "collective self-defence." The shift is needed as Japan alleges the People's Republic of China is planning to invade the disputed Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Diaoyutai in Taiwan, which both claim them.
The issue has divided Japan, where many worry about China's growing military assertiveness but also support the anti-war clause of the "peace" constitution, which the United States forced upon the defeated empire after the Second World War. About 2,000 people protested outside Abe's office, saying that any change to the constitution should be made through a public referendum, not simply a Cabinet reinterpretation. The 1947 constitution says the Japanese people "forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation."
On the other hand, the Abe move drew sharp criticism from China and a cautious reaction from South Korea, which was colonised by Japan for 35 years. Taiwan, where Japan ruled for half a decade until the end of World War II, has remained silent, though President Ma Ying-jeou, while on a state visit to Panama and El Salvador, said Taipei is keeping a close eye on its possible development into a conflict between China and Japan that may also involve the United States. He hopes the tensions would be eased between Tokyo and Beijing, shelving the sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in line with the East China Sea Peace Initiative he advocated in 2012.
"Beijing opposes Japan's act of hyping the China threat," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily briefing right after the reinterpretation had been announced in Tokyo. He added Tokyo's new policy "raises doubts about Japan's approach to peaceful development." South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Kwang-il said: "The South Korean government views it as a significant revision to the defence and security policy under the postwar peace constitution, and is paying sharp attention to it."
The United States supports the Abe move, however. With the American military financially stretched, Washington is backing whatever Japan can do to play a larger role in regional security.
Fully aware that the two-thirds majority of people consider the peace constitution part of their identity, Abe has no immediate plans to change it. But his and subsequent governments will now be empowered to authorise greater military engagement under the new interpretation of the charter, albeit the constitution has to be amended.
Abe is doing all this to ultimately amend that US-imposed constitution to make Japan a normal country, an earnest wish of his maternal grandfather Nobusuki Kishi. I attended the 88th birthday celebration of Kishi, a postwar prime minister who made the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan the anchor of Japan's national defence, and heard him say his last wish was to amend the 1947 constitution. His son-in-law, the then foreign minister Shintaro Abe, vowed at the birthday party to make that wish a reality. The son-in-law didn't become prime minister, but his son Shinzo did, and, sensing a nationalist change in public opinion in the face of a Chinese military threat, availed himself of the God-send opportunity to reinterpret Article 9 of the constitution to pave the way for the needed constitutional amendment.
Any such amendment won't make Japan a militarist power like the Japanese Empire which colonised Taiwan and Korea and invaded China as well as the whole of Southeast Asia. All Abe and the Japanese people, including those who oppose the collective defence reinterpretation want is that Japan, like every other sovereign, independent state, has the right to declare war, which they don't wish to fight in self-defence. If a state doesn't have that right, it certainly isn't a normal country. Would any country renounce its sovereign right to declare war?
On the other hand, despite the beefing up of the war potential of the People's Liberation Army and the tough talks, China has no intention of fighting against Japan to take over the Diaoyu Islands, whose defence is covered by the US-Japan mutual security treaty. Nor does the United States want to engage the People's Republic on behalf of the Philippines or Vietnam in their spats over the sovereignty of the Spratlys or the Paracels in the South China Sea. Japan won't lift a finger to help in a war between China and either of the two countries or assist Taiwan, as some Japanese strategists say, in defending itself against China.
South Korea doesn't have to be alarmed. It has been invaded by Japan quite a few times, and was finally annexed in 1910, but the Land of the Rising Sun has no stomach for warring on its closest neighbour country. North Korea, with which Japan has a row over kidnapped Japanese citizens, seems to be oblivious of the Abe move. Pyongyang is confident that the Japanese self-defence forces, dare not go to war in order to get back the abducted men and women.
No one in Japan, which has the bitterest war experiences, wants war. Uncle Sam rightly believes Japan won't turn militarist again. There is no reason why other countries disagree. They had better believe Abe is doing what he can to fulfil his father's unfulfilled vow to Kish as well as carry on the mission his mentor Junichiro Koizumi undertook to make Japan a truly normal country, as it should be.