BREAKING WORLD WAR III NEWS: GERMANY AND JAPAN ARE PREPARING FOR WORLD WAR III. Memories of World War II still cause anxiety in both countries, but a rising generation feels less constrained and less sure of the U.S. in the face of Russian and Chinese aggression.
The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has called this moment a “historic turning point.” In Japan, a famous comedian named Tamori coined the (somewhat obscure) phrase “new prewar,” and it has been widely used to say much the same thing: That Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced both countries to take their own military preparedness more seriously.
In February last year, Mr. Scholz promised to use a fund of 100 billion Euros to strengthen Germany’s neglected military forces and to push Germany’s military budget over the 2% of GDP required by NATO. Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida paid a surprise visit to Ukraine this week, the first time a Japanese prime minister had set foot in a country at war. Though still constrained by the pacifist constitution drawn up after World War II by American jurists, Mr. Kishida has vowed to boost defense spending by 50% over the next five years and to acquire missiles that could strike enemy targets if Japan were attacked.
None of these measures mean that the two former Axis powers are returning to their belligerent ways of World War II. Japan hasn’t sent anything more lethal to Ukraine than helmets and bulletproof vests. And Germany wouldn’t agree to supply Ukrainian troops with old Leopard 1 tanks, as well as some new Leopard 2 tanks, before the U.S. agreed to send M1 Abrams tanks too. The older German tanks are still under repair.
There is also considerable opposition in both countries to these responses to Russian aggression. In February, over 10,000 German pacifists, joined by pro-Russian members of the right-wing AfD party, staged a “rebellion for peace” demonstration in Berlin, protesting against the sending of Germans arms to Ukraine. In Japan, the liberal Asahi newspaper warned Mr. Kishida that his new defense plans were unconstitutional and failed to heed the lessons of the past. According to Article 9 of the constitution “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.” That is the way old-fashioned Japanese liberals like it.
Still, the invasion of Ukraine and, in the case of Japan, China’s threatening behavior toward Taiwan, less than 500 miles from Okinawa, have created a new situation that goes beyond the rousing words of leaders’ speeches. Despite Asahi editorials or protests here and there, recent events have broken the postwar consensus in both countries that they must never participate in war again.
Right-wing Japanese nationalists, such as the former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who had already done his best to improve Japan’s defenses, like to claim that official pacifism was imposed on their country by the U.S. in the aftermath of a catastrophic defeat. Until he was assassinated last year, Abe worked tirelessly to fulfill the ambition of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, to restore Japan’s right to be a military power and wash away the dark stains of history. Kishi, Japan’s armaments minister during World War II, had been accused of being a war criminal but won a reprieve from the U.S. and eventually became prime minister.
Because Japan’s military aggression in the 1930s and 1940s couldn’t be blamed on Nazis or a dictator like Hitler, the American occupiers sought to wean the Japanese themselves off their traditional militarism, their samurai spirit, as it were. What Alcoholics Anonymous is supposed to do for alcoholics, Article 9 of the pacifist constitution would do for Japan.
What Japanese nationalists, who wish to revise the constitution, often choose to forget is that pacifism has been overwhelmingly popular in Japan. War had cost millions of lives all over Asia and left Japan itself in ruins. No matter how hard nationalist leaders like Abe tried to revise Article 9, public opinion remained resolutely against it, at least up until the 1990s, after which opinion began to shift slowly. Not only had it suited Japanese fine to be shielded by the U.S. nuclear umbrella while they got on with rebuilding their nation’s wealth, but the moral satisfaction of having learned their lesson and renounced war forever even helped many Japanese forget the horrors they had inflicted on others.
It wasn’t the Japanese people who first regretted constitutional pacifism. Visiting Japan as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president in 1953, Richard Nixon told his rather startled audience that the U.S. had made a mistake in 1946 and Japan should be able to rearm. In fact, Japan had already done so to some degree. A National Police Reserve was authorized by the U.S. in 1950 and later became the Japan Self-Defense Forces.
Unfortunately, generations of Japanese conservatives who agreed with Nixon have tended to make their case by denying that Japan did anything wrong in World War II. After all, in their view, the war in the Pacific was fought to liberate Asia from Western imperialism. That many people died was unfortunate, but such bloody episodes were part of every nation’s history. The more that nationalist Japanese politicians and intellectuals insisted on this point, the more that most Japanese, and of course other Asians, resisted a change in the status quo.
This, too, is beginning to change, however, because of Russian aggression and Chinese threats. Most Japanese today have no memories of World War II. According to several polls, more than 50% of Japanese now favor a constitutional revision. And although many Japanese resist paying higher taxes to buy more arms, they are not against Prime Minister Kishida’s defense strategy per se. This is one of the consequences of living in the “new prewar.”
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