Shinzo Abe

Why pacifist Japan is standing by its old friend America in naval power play

Donald Kirk says the sending of the warship Izumo to protect a US Navy supply ship, in a first for Japan’s maritime defence, stems from Tokyo’s fear of isolation, with no good friends in the region

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 May, 2017, 1:44pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 May, 2017, 8:04pm

Under Article 9 of their pacifist constitution, “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”.

Much as “rightist” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might want to revise or rescind this, he just cannot get away with it, despite shrill anti-Japanese invective from North Korea and concerns about the rising power of China, as seen in challenges to the Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu Islands to the Chinese.

Now, the pride of Japan’s navy, a 19,500-tonne helicopter carrier named the Izumo, is about to protect a US Navy supply ship on its way to the flotilla – or “armada” as Donald Trump called it – led by the US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson.

Despite North Korean rhetoric, there is virtually no chance of its submarines endangering these vessels. If gunfire did break out, however, the Izumo would be there, in a departure from the restraint of Article 9. In fact, no Japanese warship has previously sailed off in defence of foreign interests.

The Japanese are split nearly evenly over revising the constitution so their troops can operate as fully fledged US allies

Outside the conservative establishment, Japanese have mixed feelings about where they’re going militarily. A poll by news agency Kyodo shows the Japanese split nearly evenly over revising the constitution so their troops can operate as fully fledged US allies. Slightly more than half don’t want Article 9 revised under Abe and three-quarters credit adoption of the constitution 70 years ago with keeping Japan out of war.

The Izumo represents more than its role with US warships. Its “destroyer” title is a euphemism for its purpose as a carrier big enough for a dozen or so helicopters. In case of war, the Izumo could be converted into a small jet aircraft carrier – not nearly as big as China’s newly launched Shandong, but a sign of Japan’s eagerness to buttress defences while rightists talk darkly of “the changing security environment” created by North Korea and China.

One reason the Japanese want to work with Americans on defence is that they have no good friends in the region. At US urging, Japanese and South Korean warships may cooperate in exercises, but historical differences go too deep to imagine an alliance. The Japanese are not going to agree that the rocks they call Takeshima belong to Korea, which calls them Dokdo and clings to them as a symbol of defiance against centuries of Japanese plunder.

Nor are the Japanese on great terms with Russia, despite Abe’s recent meeting with President Vladimir Putin. The two may agree that North Korea should not test nuclear weapons, but who thinks the Russians will cede the small “northern islands” seized from Japan in the second world war? In the Great Game for the region, Japan’s real fear is isolation.

Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea