Heiwaboke – what does peace really mean in Japan?

by Henry Watts

After returning from a trip around Europe a few years ago, an embarrassed Japanese friend told me about how on two separate occasions she had ‘lost’ her euros. A lady asked for “small change” at a Barcelona bus stop before swiping the lot, and then in Rome, tricksters posing as station attendants (apparently confident enough to not even bother with the uniforms) successfully took advantage of her gullibility. When the story had finished, along with her grumbling, she confessed that she suffered from something I had not heard before – heiwaboke.

In English, “heiwaboke” may be translated as “peace at any price” or, at its most derogatory, “peace idiot”. It is a by-product of the post-war project to build a new Japan as a nation of peace, centred on Article 9, or the “peace clause”, of the Japanese constitution. After decades of recovery, the new Japan – a place so accustomed to low crime and so benign that even the tourist streets are free from crooked schemes – sees only a world that is peaceful and safe and does not have any imagination at all for war or confrontation.

As nice as this might seem, there are some dangerous illusions. The most common mistake of the good-hearted, wrote novelist Lionel Shriver, is to assume everyone else is just like you. With its misapplication of trust, “heiwaboke” assumes the best in everyone, fails to see the threats and tyrannies that do in fact exist, and lacks the necessary vigilance to reliably defend one’s self and others against them.

Though my friend found this out for herself, succeeding Japanese governments – with their foreign policy – have hardly managed to unmoor themselves from the shores of Japan. they have been anchored by a constitutional relic, Article 9, which has sowed the seeds of “heiwaboke” into Japan’s dealings with the world.

When, for example, Japanese troops were finally deployed overseas in Iraq (after some severe legal wrangling), they were subject to such strict rules of engagement that, in the words Temple University’s Jeff Kingston, they were “more of a burden on the coalition than a welcome contribution, pinning down [coalition] troops for guard duty when they were desperately needed elsewhere”.

This dispatch, though largely an unavoidable quid pro quo for the US-Japan Security Alliance, was a response to criticism Japan received in the Gulf War of 1990-91 when it failed to join the 30-nation strong military coalition against Saddam Hussein (resorting instead to “checkbook diplomacy”). Now, thanks to legislation, the SDF can take part in peacekeeping operations, but it must stay clear of any combat operations, meaning Japan can only tag-on to other countries when humanitarian crises arise, as they inevitably do.

The Article 9 castration of Japan reads as follows – “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”, going on to say, “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained”. Of this, even a mild interpretation would seem to limit Japan’s right to self-defense, but given the realities of the region Japan has found itself in, with a rapidly militarising China and a cadaverous nuclear-armed North Korea, Japanese courts have been compelled to interpret the “peace clause” as allowing for defensive military forces only.

A 2012 government survey (link, Japanese) found that 82.3% of the population supported this, wishing security policy to continue as it is now, with both the US army and the SDF protecting the nation cooperatively. Yet 60% in a Mainichi poll this May opposed changing Article 9, suggesting that most are content for the government to exploit the loophole. Support for Article 9, therefore, is not so much based on a high-minded pledge to the spirit of the pacifist constitution, rather it is based on the notion that it is better to entertain a lie than to risk a fight.

Some fear, for example, that revising it and making the Self Defense Force into the National Defense Force, will mean nationalist gasbags like Osaka Mayor, Toru Hashimoto, will return Japan to a war-waging nation, provoking Chinese and Korean relations beyond repair.

But this is misguided. Nationalists like Hashimoto will pipe up whatever the weather, and his trash talk does not mean one should assume that if Japan revises Article 9 and obtains only the same sovereign rights enjoyed by every other country in the world, that it will inevitably transform into an imperialist monster once again. Arguments of this kind show only an attachment to the illusions and insularity of “heiwaboke”, and a popular misconception that only those of the Right can have any confidence in the new Japan.

“Heiwaboke” needs to be dispelled. Japan’s involvement in global and regional security should not be curtailed forever because it was once, in a bygone era, a colonial power. And nor should subservience to American strategic interests be codified into the constitution of any independent nation. To think otherwise, is to do a disservice to the independent, secular, representative democracy Japan has become since the constitution was drafted.

Image: sebra / Shutterstock.com