Japan’s Abe seeks to expand military’s role

Photos: With move to amend post–World War II constitution, Japan seeks to establish a standing military

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Every year in August, the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stand before the well-manicured peace parks in their respective cities to remember 1945. They say “never again,” joined by visiting dignitaries, peace advocates, priests and a dwindling number of hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombs dropped by the Allies at the end of World War II. The statues and greenery gesture toward overcoming, but Hiroshima’s park includes a dark reminder: At one end is a ruins — the metal frame and crumbling brick of a building bombed in 1945.

Seventy years have passed since the atomic bombs killed some 210,000 people on impact and injured tens of thousands more. The spectacular attack shocked the Japanese, already reeling from years of war and decades of imperial conflict. Japan’s surrender a few days later laid the ground for the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, a show trial of military leaders. In 1946, Allied forces imposed a new constitution, a victors’ law that has remained in place ever since.

Article 9 is the most famous clause of that document. In it, “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation” and vow that armed forces “will never be maintained.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to repeal Article 9. He has already chipped away at its substance, pushing for legislation to let Japanese troops assist U.S. and other forces abroad, which critics call unconstitutional. Japan needs a standing military, he argues, given the threat posed by China and North Korea.

In spite of its peace constitution, Japan has long maintained an elaborate Self-Defense Force on land, air and sea: troops, tanks, ships, submarines, jets and artillery. These forces have proven invaluable as first-responders to disaster — after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in 2011, for example.

But Abe wants more. In 2014, he lifted a ban on defense exports, and earlier this year, the city of Yokohama, with British support, held the nation's first-ever military trade fair, featuring the wares of homegrown defense contractors including Mitsubishi and Kawasaki.  

The images here of Japan’s Self-Defense Force reveal the face of the country’s military today. What would it mean to expand them? And how, then, would the country remember its past: Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Article 9?

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