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Return of the samurai: Japan steps away from pacifist constitution as military eyes threat from China
ABC Radio Australia - August 19, 2014
Now, with an assertive China throwing its weight around in North Asia, there is a developing inclination among Japan's leadership to take its tactical lead from another playbook: that the best form of defence is attack.
In July Japan's cabinet approved plans to redraft the country's constitution to allow the armed forces to fight overseas in support of friendly countries.
Many in Japan, young and old, worry that is leading their nation down a path to war. Others say it is a necessary response to China's growing army.
In a special report for Foreign Correspondent, the ABC's Matt Carney was given rare and privileged access to Japan's chief military academy and to the high-tech naval vessels that are ostensibly Japan's war room in the event of any conflict with China.
Air force top guns on new frontline
The new frontline with China is the Japanese air force base at Naha in Okinawa, at the southern tail of the Japanese archipelago. The jet fighter pilots based at Naha are just 20 minutes away from the Senkaku islands – the region's biggest flashpoint, which has brought Japan and China close to war.
China lays historical claim to the islands it calls Diaoyu, but Japan administers them and is not backing down.
Tension at the base is increasing. The pilots based here have seen more close calls and scrambles against Chinese jet fighters in the last year, at 810 incidents, than in the past decade.
On the morning Foreign Correspondent visited the base, the order to scramble was given twice. Pilot Sho Yoshida says he is always tense these days, as he does not "know the purpose and the intention of an aircraft that is approaching our air domain".
He acknowledges his job "is a heavy responsibility" but says he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his country. "My job is very important – to protect the peace and security of our country," he said.
Destroyer houses quick-reaction war room
Constitutionally, Japan is only allowed to have a self-defence force. But the reality is that it has one of the biggest and most sophisticated militaries in the world.
This is clearly evident on the guided missile destroyer Myoko, where Foreign Correspondent was given rare access to the Combat Information Centre (CIC).
Full of computer screens, maps, and secret launch codes, it is the very heart of Japan's defence system. The CIC can track and destroy anything across North Asia.
If China or North Korea launches a missile or deploys a jet fighter, Japan will see it here first, and an order to strike back will be issued from the CIC.
The destroyer's executive officer, Captain Tsuyoshi Sato, says a special vertical launching system has been developed to launch 90 missiles within minutes.
Captain Sato says they simply wait for the order to push to the button. "When our country is attacked the prime minister will make a defence order. We'll find the target, and attack it," he said.
Defence spending up, patriotism on the rise
Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe has increased his country's defence budget for the second year in a row, and Japan's defence spending is now ranked seventh in the world.
A decade ago, one in 10 young Japanese said they wanted to be a soldier for love of country. Now that figure is close to one in three. Michio Onji, a fourth-year cadet at Japan's elite military academy, says enrolments are bigger than ever.
"In the old days the Self-Defence Forces were seen as tax money robbers who did nothing. Through disaster relief like the 2011 tsunami, the prestige of the SDF has increased," he said.
Right-wing push to deny WWII-era crimes
The ugly face of the rise of militarism in Japan is the extreme right wing. There are about 50 major groups, including one called The New Social Order.
Like most of the right-wing groups, they want Japan to acquire nuclear weapons, and to expel all Koreans and Chinese. The aim is a return to the glory days, when Imperial Japan controlled much of Asia.
While such groups remain largely on the fringe, politicians like Toshio Tamogami are bringing them into the mainstream.
Mr Tamogami is an ex-general who was sacked as head of the Japan's air force for asserting that Japan did not fight a war of aggression in World War II.
In elections for the governor of Tokyo earlier in the year, Mr Tamogami won 24 per cent of the youth vote – the second highest share. He wants to leave Japan's war guilt behind and denies the imperial army committed atrocities.
He says the 1937 Nanjing massacre, where historians say the Japanese raped and murdered up to 300,000 Chinese is a myth. And he believes Japan should not have apologised to South Korea for its use of 'comfort women' – sex slaves – during its brutal occupation of Asia.
"Comfort women are called sex slaves but that's a lie, they were prostitutes and received about the same salary as generals and admirals," he claims.
Fears changes to constitution go too far
Growing forces within Japan are fighting this re-emergence of militarism.
University student Yoshimasa Ushida, 21, is one of those fighting against his country's new muscular posture. "I think there is a possibility of war. If so, I won't go. What shall I do with a war? I might run away," he said.
Japan's commander-in-chief, prime minister Shinzo Abe, sees the reform of the country's pacifist constitution and the restoration of Japanese pride as his historical mission.
Mr Abe has assured his people and the world that Japan will never again wage a war of aggression. He says the changes to the constitution empowering the military are about securing peace and security for the nation.
But Mr Ushida believes Mr Abe has subverted the democratic process. "What Prime Minister Abe is doing is inconsistent and irrational," he said. "He's crazy."