Yesterday, Japan unveiled its largest warship since WWII, the 250m long destroyer, Izumo. Capable of carrying nine helicopters, it is at the forefront of global naval capability and yet it can only be deployed in a ‘defensive’ capacity.
That is because, due to Article 9 of its post-WWII constitution, Japan is forbade from developing offensive military capabilities. This was designed to prevent a repeat of the ferocious imperialism that led Japanese forces to rampage across the Pacific in a bid for regional hegemony during WWII.
Indeed, it is the aptly-titled Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) that forms the country’s sole military firepower. Despite its nominally defensive nature, the potential of the JSDF is nevertheless devastating and there are increasing calls from within Japan, and amongst Shinzo Abe’s LDP government, to think about revising the restrictive constitution.
These calls are increasing primarily because of the assertiveness of Chinese foreign policy in recent months, particularly with regards to disputed islands in the East China Sea. Senkaku to Japan, Diaoyu to China, the islands are controlled by the Japanese but have been subjected to frequent sovereign incursions by Chinese maritime forces keen to show that they have not given up on possession of the territory. The fact that the islands supposedly surround a resource-rich ocean adds to the tension.
Last year, it was China that caught international headlines with the unveiling of its first aircraft carrier, the Soviet-upgraded Liaoning. Martial pomp from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is far more common than with its Japanese counterparts, yet the floating of the Liaoning was undoubtedly a major signal of Chinese intentions and power-projection capabilities.
It seems little coincidence that the unveiling of the Izumo coincided with the 68th anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, which effectively sealed Japan’s fate in WWII, ending imperialist nationalism and ushering in a period of enforced pacifism.
The choice of the date to show the Izumo to the world is pertinent. It could easily be interpreted as a statement by Japan’s government that the era of restraint is over. China’s incisions into Japanese territory have convinced the LDP that the Izumo can be legitimately deployed for ‘defensive’ operations, yet some argue that it has the potential to be converted into an aircraft carrier capable of supporting far-flung offensive military ventures.
China is likely to regard the Izumo with suspicion given its subjection in the past to the worst facets of Japanese imperialism.
If ‘Abenomics’-inspired economic recovery continues, and the Japanese Prime Minister proceeds to foster the nationalism he is renowned for, we may become used to seeing more displays of Japan’s naval potential.
It will be on the day that the constitution is amended, however, and Article 9 revoked for good, that Japan’s regional neighbours will start to panic.