Japan's military held large-scale exercises at the foot of Mount Fuji on Tuesday as Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera cited "deepening uncertainties" in the region as justification for expanding the role of Japan's armed forces at home and abroad.
Onodera said Japan's military would increasingly be called upon to participate in international peacekeeping operations and bilateral activities with allies.
The statement follows the recent unveiling of the largest Japanese warship to be built since World War II; plans to create a marine corps, a national security council, and possibly develop the capability to launch pre-emptive strikes against enemy ballistic missile sites.
All of these are in line with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's clearly stated policy goal of "escaping the postwar regime."
A Postwar Japan
What Abe calls the postwar regime was in fact the Allied nations' consensus on how to construct a new security arrangement for East Asia that would prevent a repeat of World War II. It was outlined in the Allies' 1945 Potsdam Declaration, and then written into Japan's Constitution by U.S. military officers under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
They took a two-pronged approach. First, Japan was disarmed, and its constitution forbids it from either waging war or maintaining a standing army. Second, the constitution was revised to emphasize popular sovereignty, democracy and human rights in order to prevent the re-emergence of militarism.
Japan has interpreted its constitution to allow the creation of "self-defense forces" and to allow their deployment in peacekeeping operations overseas.
Now Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, says that Western conceptions of natural rights in its constitution are incompatible with the country's traditions. It has drafted a revised constitution that critics say could fundamentally alter the relationship between the Japanese state and its people.
"Today, we think of Japan as a democratic country, where rights are generally protected by the courts and so on," says Larry Repeta, a law scholar at Tokyo's Meiji University.
"But that is under the existing constitution," he says. "The LDP proposes to put specific restrictions on free speech and other individual rights. That's one example of the kind of society that they envision, and that they propose in their revised constitution."
Repeta says the revised constitution would subordinate individual rights to public order and give the government sweeping powers in times of emergency.
But Satsuki Katayama, an LDP lawmaker and co-drafter of the revised constitution, rejects criticism that the new document offers any less protection for citizens' basic rights.
"We clearly state in the new constitution that we will respect human rights," she says firmly. "The articles that concern basic human rights in the original constitution remain unchanged. Perhaps some extreme leftists may disagree, but I would say this constitution draft really respects human rights."
An Issue For U.S. Relations
For now, the LDP does not have enough votes in parliament to amend the constitution. So its first move will be to try to lower the number of votes required to do so. While Abe's level of popular support appears strong, that seems to be due mainly to his efforts to revive the Japanese economy.
Repeta says that opinion polls show consistent public opposition to revising key parts of Japan's constitution. "I sense that there's really a big gulf between the beliefs of the Japanese people and the beliefs of the political elite that rule the country," he says.
The Abe government's effort to change the status quo in East Asia presents the U.S. with a problem. It wants robust cooperation with its chief military ally in Asia, but it doesn't want to be drawn into any conflict with China that Japan might provoke.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Yohei Kono says that the continued strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance needs to be based on a shared understanding of history.
"We should not forget our determination at that time to build a new country, based on our experience of fighting and losing a war," Kono said during an interview in his Tokyo office.
"It was at that time that our new constitution was drafted. But after 67 years, people have changed and the elderly have passed away. A new generation is coming up that doesn't know about the war," he said. "We shouldn't forget that feeling. We should pass it on."
Actually, just a few short years after the U.S. government helped draft Japan's constitution, Washington began calling for it to be amended.
The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 necessitated the redeployment of U.S. troops from Japan to South Korea. Left nearly undefended, Japan took a small step toward rearming by organizing the predecessor of today's Self Defense Forces. It was a lightly armed unit called the National Police Reserve, or NPR.