02.06.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Japan’s Return to “Normalcy” amid SARS COV-2 Pandemic


In Japan, the process of returning to “normalcy” is often tied with the desire of the nation’s leadership to remove limitations imposed on the country by Article 9 of its pacifist constitution adopted in 1947 under (to put it mildly) “pressure” from the US-led occupation administration. And according to a more radical viewpoint, the draft of this document for post-war Japan was in fact written at the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur, the head of the occupation administration.

It is important to point out that Japan used the limitations, imposed on it by its recent enemy, to its benefit in a brilliant manner. By using them as an excuse, Tokyo has managed to avoid becoming involved in numerous US “escapades” since World War II. And such a stance has often openly angered the United States (as for example during the Gulf War (1990-1991)).

During the post-war era, Japan almost completely focused on rebuilding its war-torn self and on the rapid economic development that followed, the nation also took advantage of a role as a logistics and manufacturing center which it quite often played in the aforementioned escapades. And today, Japan has de facto already become one of the leading nations of the world on account of the size of its economy (the third largest on the planet), which has essentially been playing a key role at the current stage of the global geopolitical game.

In the past decades, whenever a suitable opportunity arose, the National Diet of Japan passed a number of bills, which unbeknownst to others have essentially begun to erode the constitutional limits, as they apply within the nation and in the rest of the world.

The author thinks that completely repealing Article 9 (or amending it in a way that invalidates its current provisions) is inevitable, and that such an act may simply serve to officially confirm the changes to the constitution already in place. After all, for Japan, the process of returning to “normalcy” does not only entail gradually transforming its defense sector into a format “common to” other nations.

Japan (as the rest of the world) did not miss out on an opportunity presented by the SARS COV-2 pandemic, which serves as an unequivocal message and warning to humanity. And on April 7, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe used it for political “gain” (on the domestic front) by declaring a state of emergency in response to the Coronavirus outbreak for the first time since the Second World War.

It initially applied to Tokyo and six other prefectures (e.g. Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama, “which border the capital, Osaka and neighboring Hyogo in the west, and Fukuoka in the south-west”). But starting on May 6, the state of emergency extended to the rest of the nation.

It is worth pointing out that the nature of the outbreak in Japan (just as in most Asian nations) seems much less severe than that in the United States and a number of European countries. On May 23, there were slightly more than 16,000 people infected with the Coronavirus and approximately 800 COVID-19-related deaths in Japan.  The way the state of emergency was introduced in the nation also differed from the manner that lockdowns were imposed in Europe and the USA, as the responsibility for adhering to the rules lay almost entirely on residents of Japan.

Still, during the Coronavirus crisis, the impact on the Japanese economy has been no less severe than that in other nations. Shinzō Abe talked about steering the nation through its biggest crisis since World War II at the time he declared the state of emergency.

It was, therefore, not surprising that once the number of new Coronavirus cases began to decline noticeably in Japan, all the restrictions were lifted on May 25 almost throughout the country. And although the state of emergency was called off, “infectious disease experts” urged the public “to remain alert for a second wave of infections”.

The precedent set by the Japanese government when it declared the state of emergency is particularly worthy of note in the context of this article. Under the current constitution, the Prime Minister does not have the authority to impose and enforce a lockdown. In fact, in spring 2020, Shinzō Abe exercised the power granted by the recently revised (on March 14 of this year) Act on Special Measures for Pandemic Influenza and New Infectious Diseases Preparedness and Response, promulgated in 2012. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster had actually occurred a year earlier, in March 2011.

From the author’s point of view, several other recent developments are also a part of the process of returning to “normalcy” for Japan. Some of these events have already occurred while others are yet to be implemented.

For example, it is worth pointing out that in September of last year, it was reported that the Japanese government had been “considering adding an economic division to the National Security Council (NSC)” (a part of the Cabinet Secretariat). According to The Japan Times article, “the planned reform” came at a time when the NSC recognized “the importance of incorporating more economic perspectives into policymaking to address global challenges such as the US-China trade dispute and next-generation 5G network technology”.

In March of this year, news portal JAPAN Forward wrote that Japan’s NSC had been tasked with ramping up “the country’s fight against infectious diseases amid the extensive spread of the novel Coronavirus”.

The establishment of NSC itself, as part of the Cabinet of Japan, at the end of December 2013 (along with other similar reorganization measures taken during that period) signaled a new stage in the process of centralizing Japanese security policy with the Prime Minister and his cabinet. The act marked a milestone in the political career of Shinzō Abe, who had become the leader of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party a year earlier (the same year it had also triumphantly won in the general election).

It is also worth mentioning the nation’s plan to launch its Space Domain Mission Unit, which would be a part of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF). This euphemism (JASDF) is still being used to describe the country’s relatively fully fledged armed forces. On May 18, Minister of Defense Tarō Kōno said that Japan would launch “its first space operations unit” in order “to monitor threats to Japanese satellites in outer space”. An article published in China’s newspaper Global Times suggested that the creation of the squadron revealed Japan’s “ambition of becoming a military power again”.

Finally, it is certainly worth focusing on yet another remarkable development. The author is referring to the statement made on May 13 by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority saying that a fuel reprocessing plant (FRP) in the village of Rokkasho (in the north of Honshu Island) had successfully passed safety checks, with tougher new standards including “requirements for more robust measures against earthquakes and tsunamis”. This brought the plant “a step closer to beginning operations” in the near future. The Japan Times article also reported that the FRP would “be able to take up to 800 tons of spent fuel per year and extract about 8 tons of plutonium”.

There are two points worth focusing on at this stage. First of all, for the past two decades, the plant in Rokkasho has been viewed as “a crucial piece of the jigsaw in the government’s plan to reduce Japan’s reliance on energy imports”. After all, the plutonium from the FRP is to be used to produce a type of fuel called mixed oxide (MOX), which will be subsequently utilized to power nuclear plants again.

However, it is well-known that plutonium can also be used in the manufacture of weapons. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9 contained less than 10 kg of Plutonium. Comparing the aforementioned number with the production capacity of the plant in Rokkasho (and also taking into account the fact that Japan has already accumulated several dozen tons of the substance) often sparks discussions about the nation’s impressive capabilities to manufacture nuclear weapons if needed.

However, the Japanese government has repeatedly emphasized its commitment to the three Non-Nuclear Principles (of non-possession, non-production and non-introduction) adopted at the end of 1960s. The principles are a parliamentary resolution, which have never been adopted into law, thus it is not mandatory to abide by them.

In summary, the author would like to make a few concluding statements. Japan’s defense budget has for decades been less than 1% of the nation’s GDP, i.e. one of the lowest percentages in the world. As Japan continues to recover from the post-war syndrome, it is transforming into a “normal” country that is essentially no different from any other leading world powers. The process of returning to “normalcy” in Japan is multifaceted and is not solely focused on either repealing or amending Article 9 of the country’s current constitution. In fact, a key supporter of such a change, i.e. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, has seemingly removed the issue from the list of current priorities that now include introducing an emergency clause in the Constitution “to give more power to the Cabinet at a time of a major disaster”.

The Coronavirus pandemic continues to impact all aspects of governance, as evidenced in India. Until recently, just as in Japan, the COVID-19 outbreak appeared to be under control in India. As a result, on May 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced further easing of restrictions during the subsequent stage of the lockdown (imposed until May 31) and the start of substantive reforms to India’s economy. However, the number of new Coronavirus cases, which stabilized by the middle of May (i.e. two weeks after the first set of measures had been lifted), began to increase rapidly once again (reaching an average of +3,500 infected people per day). On May 17, the daily growth was +5,000 and on May 25, +7,000 already. This is probably why on May 23, India’s Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman stated that “future fiscal policy actions to stimulate the economy” would “depend on how COVID-19 pandemic” panned out.

Let us wait and see whether Japan can avoid the same fate.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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