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Japan Passes Landmark Patriotism Laws

by Antho­ny Faio­la
Wash­ing­ton Post For­eign Ser­vice

TOKYO, Dec. 15 — Prime Min­is­ter Shin­zo Abe’s gov­ern­ment on Fri­day suc­cess­ful­ly pushed through land­mark laws requir­ing Japan­ese schools to encour­age patri­o­tism in the class­room and ele­vat­ing the Defense Agency to the sta­tus of a full min­istry for the first time since World War II.

Both mea­sures are con­sid­ered cor­ner­stones of Abe’s con­ser­v­a­tive agen­da to bol­ster Japan’s mil­i­tary sta­tus and rebuild nation­al pride in a coun­try that had long asso­ci­at­ed patri­o­tism with its impe­ri­al­ist past. The leg­is­la­tion cleared the upper house of par­lia­ment on Fri­day after win­ning approval in the low­er house last month and will come into effect ear­ly next year.

Abe, Japan’s first prime min­is­ter born after World War II, had made edu­ca­tion reform a key issue dur­ing his cam­paign to suc­ceed Junichi­ro Koizu­mi in Sep­tem­ber. His bid to restore patri­o­tism in schools has drawn harsh crit­i­cism from Japan­ese paci­fists, who have argued that such a law echoes the state-spon­sored indoc­tri­na­tion of chil­dren prac­ticed by Japan’s past mil­i­tary lead­ers.

But Abe and oth­er pro­po­nents have coun­tered that a renewed embrace of patri­o­tism is an essen­tial step for­ward for Japan as it grad­u­al­ly emerges from a decades-long sense of guilt over World War II. In recent years, for instance, local munic­i­pal­i­ties have begun enforc­ing laws requir­ing the nation­al anthem to be sung and the Japan­ese flag flown at cer­tain school cer­e­monies, despite objec­tions from teach­ers unions, which remain one of the last bas­tions of paci­fism in Japan.

The edu­ca­tion reform law is like­ly to dra­mat­i­cal­ly increase the num­ber of schools using revi­sion­ist text­books that have been her­ald­ed by con­ser­v­a­tives here but decried by Japan’s wartime vic­tims — par­tic­u­lar­ly Chi­na and South Korea — as white­wash­ing its past aggres­sion. Such books, for instance, omit ref­er­ence to “com­fort women,” a euphemism for the thou­sands of Asian women forced into sex­u­al bondage by the Japan­ese mil­i­tary dur­ing the 1930s and 1940s.

“The revi­sion bears the his­toric sig­nif­i­cance of clear­ly show­ing the fun­da­men­tal idea of edu­ca­tion for a new era,” Abe said in a state­ment laud­ing the law’s pas­sage.

Also approved were a key set of bills upgrad­ing Japan’s Defense Agency — cre­at­ed in 1954 fol­low­ing the end of the Amer­i­can occu­pa­tion of Japan — to the sta­tus of a full min­istry. The move affords greater clout to defense offi­cials in nation­al pol­i­cy­mak­ing and bud­get deci­sions, some­thing long con­sid­ered taboo here in the decades fol­low­ing the war.

The pri­ma­ry mis­sion of Japan’s Self Defense Forces — whose role had long been strict­ly defined as defense of the home islands — will now be expand­ed to include over­seas peace­keep­ing mis­sions. Japan dis­patched non-com­bat troops to Iraq from 2004 until ear­li­er this year, but did so only after Koizu­mi won spe­cial author­i­ty from par­lia­ment.

The ele­va­tion to min­istry sta­tus also paves the way for the pas­sage of more spe­cif­ic laws that would give Japan greater flex­i­bil­i­ty to dis­patch its forces to inter­na­tion­al hot spots. More impor­tant­ly, it could open the door for a larg­er mea­sure of logis­ti­cal sup­port by Japan in the event of a region­al con­flict. Such a move could change the bal­ance of pow­er in East Asia, empow­er­ing Tokyo, for instance, to assist the Unit­ed States in the defense of Tai­wan in the event of Chi­nese aggres­sion. But offi­cials here say it may yet take years before bills that would explic­it­ly per­mit such actions are draft­ed and sub­mit­ted to par­lia­ment.

Nev­er­the­less, the upgrad­ing of the defense agency under­scores the increas­ing role of the mil­i­tary estab­lish­ment in Japan, a nation that, under its paci­fist con­sti­tu­tion draft­ed by the Unit­ed States fol­low­ing World War II, renounced the right to use force to set­tle inter­na­tion­al dis­putes. Japan has large­ly relied on its secu­ri­ty alliance with the Unit­ed States, which keeps some 50,000 troops in Japan, for deter­rence.

But with con­cerns grow­ing about region­al secu­ri­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly as a result of North Kore­a’s pur­suit of nuclear weapons, Japan has begun to shed its paci­fist shell. Abe has called for the full redraft­ing of a new con­sti­tu­tion that would allow Japan to offi­cial­ly pos­sess a flex­i­ble mil­i­tary again.


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