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Is This The End of Japanese Pacifism?

By Ned Dobos

Article 9: (i) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (ii) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.

A couple of weeks ago Article 9 of the Japanese constitution was given a “reinterpretation” by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as it pushed a controversial security bill through the legislature. Should the bill become law, the Japanese Self-Defence Force will be free to engage in combat operations beyond the country’s borders for the first time in 70 years. While some of Japan’s allies—the United States in particular—have welcomed the move, it has proven far less popular domestically. The most recent opinion poll shows that those against outnumber those in favour by a margin of two-to-one. Almost 10,000 people, including public figures, scholars, artists, and a Nobel Laureate signed a petition opposing the legislation. Tens of thousands more attended mass demonstrations. Earlier, physical scuffles broke out in the upper house of parliament when members of opposition attempted to prevent the passage of the bill.

The reinterpretation amounts to the end of Japan’s post-war pacifism, or at least that has been the dominant narrative since the news broke. But this is more contentious than the reports let on. I will provide a brief overview of the different forms that pacifism comes in, and suggest that Japan’s post-war military policy does not express any of them.

In its most recognisable form, pacifism is an absolute, in-principle condemnation of violence, or at least of the organised, politically-driven, large-scale killing and maiming that characterises warfare. A distinctive feature of this position is its denial of the very possibility of a “just war”, even a defensive one. This is what separates pacifists from many of history’s Just War Theorists, for whom the moral presumption against war can be overturned in cases of self-defence against foreign aggression. For the in-principle pacifist, Just War Theory fails to accurately capture the demands of morality insofar as it licences war under any conceivable circumstances.

Not surprisingly, this position has failed to gain much traction with philosophers of war and military ethicists, for whom Just War Theory remains the most intuitively plausible and theoretically coherent framework for evaluating armed conflict. In recent years, however, a new kind of pacifism has begun to emerge: one which, rather than contesting Just War Theory, embraces its principles. According to so-called “contingent” pacifism, war would indeed be morally acceptable if it satisfied the various requirements of Just War Theory (such as just cause, last resort, proportionality, civilian immunity etc.) However, these pacifists argue that no actual war meets these requirements. They are simply not achievable given certain empirical realities.


“(…) the contingent pacifist submits that while war can in theory be justified, as a matter of fact it never is, not even for the sake of national self-defence.”


Perhaps the most common form of contingent pacifism rests on the observation that, since wars are now fought in built-up urban areas with mechanised weapons and aerial bombardment, it is inevitable that many innocent civilians will be killed. Traditionally, Just War Theory makes allowances for civilian casualties as long as they are merely foreseen rather than intended. But contingent pacifists have tended to dismiss the intention/foresight distinction as morally irrelevant. For example, if you speed through a school zone knowing for certain, but not intending, that a child will be struck and killed by your car, is this really any different, morally speaking, from deliberately running down the child? If not, then killing innocent people with “mere foresight” is just as bad as killing them intentionally. But if this is correct it seems that all modern war is morally forbidden, given that some incidental civilian harm is always to be expected. Hence the contingent pacifist submits that while war can in theory be justified, as a matter of fact it never is, not even for the sake of national self-defence.

Both in-principle pacifism and contingent pacifism object to the waging of war. A third form —so-called institutional pacifism—has a different focus. The institutional pacifist objects not so much to waging wars with the military resources that we have amassed, but to the amassing of those resources to begin with. To put it another way, while in-principle and contingent pacifists object to military operations, institutional pacifists object to the very existence of the military. Interestingly, some proponents of this view are prepared to concede that going to war might be morally permissible in some circumstances, but they deny that this is sufficient to justify the state in creating and maintaining a war-making machine, especially since there are (they believe) alternative arrangements for national defence that are equally effective and less costly (morally and materially) in the long run.

On the face of it, Article 9 of the Japanese constitution does appear to enshrine both the pacifism of acts and the pacifism of institutions. There is a commitment not to threaten or use military force, and a commitment not to maintain an apparatus that might provide the opportunity or temptation for such use. In its interpretation, however, it is doubtful that the Article ever was pacifistic, properly speaking.


“This is not pacifism in any meaningful sense. It is anti-aggression for sure, but that is not the same as being anti-war.”


The promise not to build “war potential” in the second paragraph has for the most part been understood to mean military capacity beyond the minimum necessary for national self-defence. Obviously this is a fluid standard; the greater the perceived threat, the greater the military capacity needed to neutralise it. It is hardly surprising, then, that as China has augmented its military power over the last few decades Japan’s defence budget ballooned to the third largest in the world.[1] Similarly, the renunciation of war “as a means of settling international disputes” in the first paragraph has been interpreted by the Supreme Court of Japan as a commitment not to invade other countries militarily, rather than a commitment to refrain from repelling invaders. This is not pacifism in any meaningful sense. It is anti-aggression for sure, but that is not the same as being anti-war.

Of course, none of this is to say that Prime Minister Abe’s recent move is insignificant or unproblematic. It may see Japanese forces roped into wars of “collective defence” at the request of allies that (arguably) ought not to be trusted to make sound and unbiased judgments as to the justice of those wars. It is a mistake, however, to characterise this as the end of pacifism in Japan. Pacifism comes in many forms, but Japan has not fit into any of them for quite some time.

[1] Chinen, Mark A. “Article Nine of Japan’s Constitution: From Renunciation of Armed Forces ‘Forever’ to the Third Largest Defense Budget in the World.” Michigan Journal of International Law 27 (2005):60

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Ethical War Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.

2 Comments

  1. Iwao Hirose

    Two qualifications are needed. One is formal. Do three forms of pacifism, presented in the text, exhaust all the possibilities of what we mean by pacifism? I have no answer. The other is substantive. Can a weaker version of in-principle pacifism be seen as pacifism? The weaker version holds that there cannot be a just war outside the Japanese territory while there can be a just defensive war. It may or may not be seen as a form of pacifism. But I suspect Japanese take the weaker version to be pacifism in the current context. In any case, by pacifism, Japanese may refer to something different from what philosophers have in mind — just like “futon” refers to similar, but different, things in Japan and North America.

    • Ned Dobos

      Fair comment, Iwao. In fact there’s a nice article by Cheyney Ryan (in Phil Forum 2015) talking about how the meaning of the word “pacifism” has changed over the years. He suggests that even in the US, pacifism was once understood simply as anti-militarism or anti-aggression. On that conception I guess the Japanese constitution, even in its interpretation, is pacifist.

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