Visiting Hiroshima last Friday, President Obama warned that overcoming the perils of global conflict and nuclear weapons will require a “moral revolution” sustained by “the radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family.” He omitted to mention that this notion has been the constitutional basis of Japan’s foreign policy since 1947. Future historians may conclude that Mr. Obama’s visit to Hiroshima provided a spectacle to help remilitarize the world’s wealthiest, most populous pacifist country.
Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s election in 2012, the Obama administration has relied on Japan to help escalate America’s military presence in Asia. The Abe administration has expanded Japan’s commitment to maintaining U.S. bases, relaxed restrictions on bilateral arms trading, and negotiated a framework for joint operations that makes America responsible for maintaining a regional balance of power that protects Japanese interests.
This restructuring of the U.S.-Japan alliance depends on the continued progress of Mr. Abe’s legacy project: removing language from Japan’s Constitution that forbids the use of force to settle international disputes. The Abe administration has been able to shed the prevailing interpretation of this article, widely understood to prohibit the international deployment of Japanese troops, but the language itself continues to restrict the scope of Japan’s military operations, including activities integral to the defense agreement Mr. Abe and Mr. Obama struck last year.
Eliminating these restrictions is ostensibly in the interest of peace, because the alternative to a rearmed Japan is an unchecked — and nuclear-armed — China. But this assessment leaves no room for the possibility that Japan’s military, among the best equipped in the world, has exerted a moderating influence on the region precisely because the Constitution has protected it from misadventure.
In supporting Mr. Abe’s effort to restore Japan’s ability to join and wage wars, Mr. Obama has chosen the wrong strategic partner. The next U.S. president will inherit an East Asia policy vulnerable to the uncertainties of Japan’s transition away from pacifism. Since 2012, Mr. Abe’s foreign policy decisions have harmed Japan’s relationships with its neighbors, including the U.S. ally South Korea. Several of his political appointees have proven scandal-prone in matters of diplomacy.
And Japan might not accept America’s strategic dictates. Firm supporters of Mr. Abe’s agenda see their efforts as the casting off of the final remnants of the American occupation, so that Japan can reclaim its own superpower status. In the ideological terrain of contemporary Japanese politics, the accommodation of American interests is chiefly opportunistic, and the underlying motive is often retrograde nationalism. Mr. Abe’s push to revise the Constitution has coincided with cabinet-level attempts to renegotiate history: Whether so-called comfort women used by Japanese soldiers during World War II were “sex slaves” or if their work was a form of indentured servitude; and how many Chinese civilians died in the Nanking Massacre in 1937.
For Japanese voters, these debates formed the political and social context of Mr. Obama’s visit. Questions of war memory dominated press coverage. According to a 2015 survey by Pew Research, 56 percent of Americans believe the atomic bombings were necessary; 14 percent of Japanese agree. By delivering an appeal for disarmament in a nation whose pacifist Constitution his Asian pivot has helped to controvert, Mr. Obama has risked lending credibility to the dangerous notion beneath Abe’s rhetoric: that Japan can best retain its identity as a peace-loving culture by embracing the restoration of its martial role in international affairs.
If it were the will of the Japanese electorate to adopt the Abe doctrine, then the question of how Mr. Obama’s visit has contributed to its legitimization would be academic. But nearly none of Abe’s policies, including revision of the pacifist Constitution, poll well. He nonetheless enjoys reliably favorable approval ratings, attributed by the center-right media to his carefully-cultivated public persona and by the left to calculated manipulation of the national psyche.
Mr. Abe’s attempts to claim Japan’s collective memory have been less than democratic. He has been at war with the press since he took office, and has been especially zealous about destabilizing the country’s foremost daily newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, chief antagonist of his most hawkish positions. He has responded to multiple Supreme Court decisions requiring reform of the nation’s broken electoral system with a plan calculated to delay changes for as long as possible, a manipulation intended to give him time to build an opposition-proof majority in Parliament, and to create the illusion of an overwhelming mandate to remove pacifist language from the Constitution.
For Mr. Abe, Mr. Obama’s visit also provided a distraction from an initial wave of policy failures related to his American pivot. Early attempts to expand Japan’s arms export business have produced tepid results; and in anticipation of rearmament, the branches of Japan’s military have engaged in a wasteful struggle for funding — U.S. arms dealers have responded by price- gouging the Japanese government.
In Hiroshima, Mr. Obama praised the U.S.-Japan alliance, saying it has taught both countries to cherish peace. He did not reflect on the 69 years of Japanese pacifism that have kept Japan out of war while the United States has waged several. By neglecting them, in a speech that touched so many old wounds, Mr. Obama has advanced the politically fraught and historically unsupportable notion that Japan has been the victim of its painful past, not the beneficiary of its difficult lessons.
Dreux Richard is the author of the forthcoming Every Human Intention: Japan in the New Century.