Japan’s current constitution continues to force the prosperous nation to retain a pacifist military policy ever since the clause was forced on Tokyo by the United States in the aftermath of the Second World War and the devastation that Japanese troops caused to the Asian states it illegally occupied. When the US forced Japan’s constitution on the beaten nation after the War, few could have imaged that Japan would rapidly become America’s top north east Asian ally along with South Korea.
That being said, Japan’s reconciliation efforts with both China and the Korean people have been far less cut and dry. Part of this reason is because while the US had its Naval Port at Pearl Harbor bombed by Japan on a single occasion, China and Korea faced a devastating occupations where Japanese troops massacred, tortured, enslaved and raped the civilian populations of the countries they occupied.
In spite of this, a general spirit of peace pervades in north east Asia and China and Japan continue to pursue mature, healthy relations in spite of disagreements on certain issues including trade. The same is largely true of South Korea, even though the recent removal of a memorial to Comfort Women in Seoul in order to allegedly placate Tokyo, caused protests among South Korean patriots who insist that the memory of the Korean women effectively enslaved by Japanese men should not have their memory tarnished due to politically correct considerations.
Japan’s relations with the DPRK are far more complicated. There has been no formal post-occupation reconciliation between Tokyo and Pyongyang although in the 1990s, the two countries attempted to normalise bilateral relations. Nevertheless, Japanese civilian goods are visible in the DPRK, as it is alleged that both state and private sector actors in Japan covertly cooperate with third parties in importing the goods into the DPRK. Nevertheless, many DPRK songs and pieces of literature continue to speak of the horrors of Japanese occupation in a much more direct manner than in other regional countries occupied by Japan in the 20th century. This itself it largely because there has never been a successful opening of new ties in the post-war era.
While much of the tense situation between Pyongyang and Tokyo has been due to the suspicious feelings among the political class in both nations, a lot of it is also due to the United States which has encouraged Japan to re-militarise itself against what Washington has promoted as the DPRK’s threat to Japan. The fact that DPRK missile tests have occasionally seen projectiles launched over Japanese territory and Japanese waters has only helped to highlight the US narrative and consistently, the US sold many expensive weapons to Tokyo in spite of its US drafted pacifist constitution.
Now that the DPRK has pledged to rapidly de-nuclearise and engage in a peace process with fellow Koreans in the South as well as the US, Russia and China, Japanese Premier Abe is reportedly keen on meeting Kim Jong-un face to face.
A Kim-Abe meeting would in many ways be even more historic than the Kim-Trump meeting as the animosity between Korea (as retained in the North) and Japan goes back even further than the DPRK’s animosity towards the United States. Likewise, while Japan and South Korea have managed to address ghosts of the past to the mutual satisfaction of most (though not all) South Koreans, anything that helps create harmonious relations throughout modern north east Asia can only be described as a good development for all parties.
However, Abe and his US partners must also be aware of the law of unintended consequences that will come into play as a new era dawns on the Korean peninsula. In an era where Donald Trump has stated that the DPRK’s threats to others are a thing of the past and if Premier Abe meets Kim and agrees to enter a new era of peace and reconciliation, then one must ask: What are Japan’s own aggressive weapons for?
Attempts by the Japanese right-wing to amend the pacifist constitution remain very controversial in Japan as millions of Japanese have come to embrace an atmosphere of peace through commerce while avidly rejecting the war like stance of past Japanese regimes. While renouncing pacifism remains controversial in Japan, it is widely understood that the US would prefer Japan to at least partly re-militarise, something which given the history of the region could be seen as a provocation to Japan’s neighbours.
Irrespective of this, if the only country that Tokyo formally recognised as a regional threat is now classified by the US President himself as a non-threat in the aftermath of the Singapore Summit, how can Tokyo justify spending money on re-armaments which even at the lowest point in DPRK-Japan relations were seen as “twisting the meaning” of the Japanese constitution, while some called it an outright violation of the letter of post-war Japanese law?
The world should welcome any reconciliation attempts between Pyongyang and Tokyo but the world should also be aware that if the DPRK de-nuclearises and South Korea has US weapons of mass destruction removed from its soil, Japan too must re-learn to embrace pacifism for the benefit of lasting peace in the region.