Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2022.05.13

War in Ukraine shatters Japan's pacifist dreams

Many Japanese are now realizing that the best military defense might include a good offense

the japan times on April 28, 2022

International Politics/Diplomacy Ukraine

What a difference the war in Ukraine has made in Tokyo.

Japan has not only swiftly joined the West in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and imposed heavy sanctions, but has also unconditionally accepted Ukrainian refugees and even provided bullet-proof vests and other military supplies to help in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

If something like this had happened in the 1980s, peace-loving liberals and socialists in Japan would have fainted or had a stroke while the Cabinet collapsed overnight. Now, however, there is not much separating conservatives and the liberal left, with both condemning Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine.

For this reason, in an international webinar held in early April, I said, “Japan seems to be awakening, if not as awake as the Germans are.”

In fact, something is different among the Japanese these days. Unlike during the Gulf War of the early 1990s or the Iraq War nearly a decade later, the people of Japan seem to finally feel that it is high time for Tokyo to face the unpleasant realities of the world.

Is this only a temporary phenomenon in Japan? Hardly so. I rather consider this as a “new political normal in Japan” which will be irreversible in the years to come.

The war in Ukraine is changing the mindset of Japanese citizens and forcing them, whether they like it or not, to gradually reconsider their preferred, but unrealistic post-WWII pacifism for numerous reasons.

One notable difference is the silence of those pro-Russia scholars and politicians who had been vocal in promoting bilateral ties with Moscow. It is because what Putin and his armed forces have done in Ukraine has been so unjustifiable, both legally and ethically, that no pro-Russia pundits can speak out in Japan and defend the war crimes or the crimes against humanity that are taking place.

The ordinary Japanese person seems to be convinced that Russia cannot be trusted. The promoters of bilateral cooperation between Tokyo and Moscow have been silent since the beginning of the invasion. These have made it much easier for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to make a series of tough and sometimes unprecedented political decisions on Russia.

Military preparedness

One of Putin’s miscalculations was to underestimate the resilience of the Ukrainian armed forces and people. Those brave and patriotic men and women of Ukraine have shown that to protect a country, the people must be willing and able to fight. That said, in Japan, some influential pundits once asserted that it was better for the Ukrainians to surrender, rather than to fight, to save the lives of innocent civilians.

Fortunately, they were roundly criticized and the argument was dropped. What is more important, however, is the realization that defensive planning alone will not deter an aggressor. A country cannot properly defend itself without maintaining combat readiness, especially when it comes to offensive military capabilities. Ordinary people in Japan are beginning to realize this.

Predictions by Russia hands are not always reliable. Their analysis, even with a wealth of knowledge, did not help them in foreseeing Russia’s invasion or Putin’s determination. Hopefully, this may eventually force Japan to develop a full-fledged external intelligence service for the first time since 1945.

Another notable feature to come out of the war in Ukraine was the new kind of information warfare employed by the United States. Washington effectively deterred Russia by declassifying and sharing top secret information related to the Russian military. The Ukrainian forces would not have been able to fight effectively without advanced U.S. and Western weapon systems, as well as intelligence that showed the location and posture of Russian forces.

About alliances

Ukraine also has no real allies as it is not a member of NATO. And NATO countries have no legal obligation to defend Ukraine in the event of a military invasion. Nevertheless, the United States and other NATO members are providing military assistance to Ukraine while not directly involving their military forces in the war.

Still, if Ukraine were a NATO member, Russia would not have likely been so bold as to invade. In this sense, the situation in Ukraine today shows how valuable Japan’s mutual security treaty with the United States has been. That said, however, alliances do not always work as intended and prevent war. These are all invaluable lessons the conflict in Ukraine has taught the people of Japan.

The reality of the war in Ukraine reminds us that unless a people stand up and fight, allies will not help. When Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, fell last August, then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. In contrast, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy remained in Kyiv to bravely lead the fight against a much more powerful Russian military.

It is hard to believe that an ally would protect a nation whose people are not willing to sacrifice their own blood to fight off an invasion. It is only when people are willing to risk their lives to fight that allies will join in and provide assistance. The war in Ukraine is beginning to show Japan’s post-WWII “utopian” pacifist dream is a relic of the past. This is what I meant by saying that Japan is “awakening.”

Putin cannot afford to “lose” this conflict; but there is no “great victory” in Russia’s future either. The Russian leader’s strategic miscalculations have been costly. If he loses, it may be the beginning of his end. For Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, on the other hand, there are no easy compromises. If the Russian invasion is not halted, obtaining a favorable cease-fire will be near impossible. Beijing, of course, is holding its breath to see how the war unfolds.

Zelenskyy called the latest Russian offensive the “Battle of Donbas,” emphasizing that the war has entered a critical phase. The outcome of this battle may be crucial in not only determining the course of the entire war, but also in sending the right message to China, which may also be contemplating an attempt at changing the status-quo by force in this part of the world.