Why We Watch Japan’s March Toward Militarism

A look at the history of this trend in the news—and its future
From the August 2015 Trumpet Print Edition

Japan’s shift away from pacifism and toward becoming a full-fledged military power has long been a focus of the Trumpet as well as our forerunner, the Plain Truth.

We have drawn attention to the shift because we believe it will culminate in a violent conflict affecting millions, possibly even billions. To understand why we hold this view, first consider why Japan became a pacifist nation in the first place.

A Tragic History

In the 1920s, Japan’s economy was stagnating. To inspire the people, its leaders dusted off some ancient Japanese myths and began teaching them to the people. They taught that Japan was a nation of gods, racially superior to all others. They taught that the imperial family was the offspring of the sun goddess Amaterasu. State Shinto became the national religion. It taught that Emperor Hirohito was the “son of heaven”—an omnipotent god destined to rule the whole world. These ideas became the mantras of school curricula and were trumpeted in Japan’s civic life.

The Tanaka Memorial (a document allegedly presented to Hirohito by Premier Baron Gi-ichi Tanaka) essentially became Japan’s foreign policy from 1927 until the end of World War ii. One part of the document said: “The nations of the world will come to look up to our emperor as the great ruler of all nations.” Although the authenticity of the document is a matter of dispute, history shows that Japan followed its strategy, at least in the broad strokes. It laid out detailed military plans for Japan to conquer the entire world, starting with China: “With China’s entire resources at our disposal, we shall conquer India, Central Asia and Europe. … A victorious Japan will place all the white races of the world under the rule of the son of heaven. … In order to conquer the world, we must first conquer China. If we succeed in conquering China, the rest of the Asiatic countries and the South Sea countries will fear us and surrender to us.”

Much hinged on Japan’s conquest of China. The Japanese wanted this conquest to inspire fear throughout Asia, so their invasion of China was ruthless beyond words.

In the Massacre of Nanjing, for example, Japanese troops murdered over 200,000 Chinese civilians. Mothers with infants, pregnant women, children and old men were tortured, bayonetted, beheaded, burned or buried alive. Many women and girls were gang-raped, mutilated and killed. Others were kept around as “comfort women”—sex slaves forced to serve Japanese soldiers. Unborn babies were routinely torn out from pregnant women and killed. Soldiers often gouged the eyes out of children and babies in front of their mothers before slaughtering both woman and child.

These weren’t soldiers running amok, ignoring orders. The crimes were well known to the military’s highest officers. The chief commander of the Nanjing invasion was Emperor Hirohito’s uncle. The evils were committed with the royal stamp of approval. It was sanctioned for the purpose of instilling fear in the nations they planned to conquer next.

Nanjing was not an isolated case of savagery. Japanese troops were similarly cruel in other Chinese cities, and also in Korea, the Philippines, Singapore and other countries. A look further back into history shows that World War ii was not an anomalously aggressive epoch for the Japanese. There were also the invasions of Korea in the 1590s, the Battle of Ganghwa, the First Sino-Japanese War, the invasion of Taiwan, the Russo-Japanese War, and the list goes on.

Victory or Death

During World War ii, the ruthlessness and tenacity of the Japanese was largely driven by their belief that Hirohito was a god destined to rule the world. This was a toxic faith. It made many Japanese virtually incapable of surrendering—even in the face of insurmountable odds.

In 1941, Japan’s top military leader, Hideki Tojo, said, “Do not live in shame as a prisoner. Die, and leave no ignominious crime behind you.” Some Japanese soldiers were taken captive, but the majority obeyed Tojo and the doctrines of State Shinto, either fighting until they were killed or committing suicide. The fanatic commitment spread even to Japanese civilians. This was perhaps most evident when American troops moving onto Saipan in June 1944 saw mothers clutch their infants and fling themselves off cliffs rather than risk being captured.

By the end of World War ii, Japan had been fighting for 14 years. Almost 3 million Japanese were dead, with many more injured or gravely ill. Most of the population were starving, and the nation lay in ruins. But even then, soldiers and civilians generally would not surrender. Nothing short of two atomic bombs was able to halt Japan’s perverse military fanaticism.

Japanese ‘Forever Renounce War’

It was then, in the immediate aftermath of that tragic history, that the United States occupied Japan and drafted its Constitution. American officials, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, wanted to ensure that military fanaticism would not rise again in Japan. Thus, they included Article 9 in the new Constitution. This clause outlawed war as a means for Japan to settle international disputes.

Article 9 states: “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. … [L]and, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

“We are committed,” MacArthur said, “to see that the Japanese people are liberated from this condition of slavery.”

As part of the liberation, MacArthur’s team outlawed emperor worship and disbanded State Shinto. They led Emperor Hirohito to deliver his famous “Declaration of Humanity,” a radio address to Japan in which he renounced the nationalistic interpretation of Shinto, denounced the idea that he was a god, and said the Japanese are not a superior race.

Shortly after Article 9 was written, the U.S. and Japan signed the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. This codified Japan’s dependence on the U.S. for its defense, saying America would defend Japan by stationing U.S. troops near potential conflict zones in the region.

Quietly Returning to Militarism

The Constitution that U.S. leaders wrote, without the change of even a comma, has technically governed Japanese affairs in the decades since.

But during the 70 years that have passed since the end of World War ii, Japan has made some significant strides away from pacifism.

The first of these came as early as 1950, when Japan established a National Police Reserve. Then in 1954, with Washington’s support, Japan expanded this police reserve into the Japan Self-Defense Force (sdf). This “self-defense” force became in fact a fully integrated, ultra-modern assemblage of land, sea and air components to rival those of any other world power. In 1992, Japan passed the United Nations Peacekeeping Cooperation Law, which allowed the sdf to take part in certain non-military aspects of UN missions. That meant Japanese soldiers were allowed, for the first time since World War ii, to be stationed outside Japan’s borders. Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which brought about changes that the New York Times called “the most significant transformation in Japan’s military since World War ii” (July 23, 2007).

Japan’s march toward open militarization sped up from 2004 to 2010. During those years, Tokyo sent noncombat troops to Iraq, Indonesia, Nepal, Israel, Djibouti, Somalia and Haiti. During the same time frame, Japan made more moves away from being a purely “self-defense” force. It began looking to use its space program for military purposes. Its defense agency was upgraded to become a full-fledged ministry, giving it a greatly amplified voice in the cabinet. It gained the capacity to fly F-2s more than 1,700 miles without refueling. It dropped 500-pound live bombs as part of training exercises.

On March 11, 2011, the magnitude-9.0 Tohoku earthquake struck Japan, spawning a tsunami and causing a severe nuclear crisis. The sdf leaped to action, carrying out rescue operations with more than 100,000 soldiers—an utterly unprecedented number in the postwar era. “It is no exaggeration to say that the earthquake has spurred the most significant Japanese military operations since the end of World War ii,” World Politics Review wrote at the time.

The rescue efforts drastically improved the Japanese public’s perception of its nation’s military forces. The sdf experienced its greatest public support in decades.

In April 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe removed the weapons export ban that was enacted in 1967. The embargo prevented weapons exports to Communist bloc nations, countries subject to arms export embargoes under UN Security Council resolutions and nations involved in or likely to be involved in international conflicts.

On July 1, 2014, Tokyo made the decision to “reinterpret” a key section of its pacifist Constitution: the ban on collective self-defense. For the preceding 70 years, it had understood this section as limiting Japan’s forces to acting in its own defense, and never in defense of its allies, and never in any conflict outside Japanese territory. The reinterpretation meant Japan could use its large, cutting-edge military in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier: If a U.S. ship is under fire, Japan can assist it; if a North Korean missile is aimed at an Australian ship, Japan can shoot it down; if the United Nations is involved in a “gray zone” activity, Japanese troops can participate.

The landmark reinterpretation paved the way for greater changes to Japan’s Constitution. For the first time since World War ii, Japan could soon officially have first-strike capabilities against potential threats.

In light of Japan’s wartime history, all of these steps toward nationalism and militarism are worthy of attention and concern.

Whitewashing the Past

Adding to the concern is the fact that Japan is notorious for failing to express much remorse for its wartime savagery. Japan has also revised history in many cases to downplay its crimes.

For example, postwar Japan has officially apologized to China for the Massacre of Nanjing, but the apologies have been regularly undercut by revisionist statements from leading voices.

“The Nanjing Massacre is a lie made up by the Chinese,” Japanese Cabinet Minister Shintaro Ishihara said in 1990. “The Nanjing Massacre is a fabrication,” Japanese Justice Minister Nagano Shigeto said in 1994. “The Americans brainwashed the postwar Japanese into believing they had committed terrible war crimes,” said Tokyo University Prof. Nobukatsu Fujioka in 1997.

Textbooks used in Japan’s school system are also notorious for glossing over or ignoring the country’s wartime barbarism. Some fear that since Japanese students aren’t learning this history, the nation is forgetting its past and new generations could be more likely to repeat it. Mr. Abe has addressed this, saying he wants to further beautify Japan’s wartime history so Japanese children can be proud of their past.

The people of Japan embody many exceptionally noble and admirable traits. Their cultural and technological contributions have enriched the human experience for millions around the globe. But as a result of historic revisionism, a dangerous number of modern Japanese view their nation’s wartime atrocities with pride.

This is a foreboding and worrisome trend.

State Shinto and Emperor Worship

Adding to the worry is the fact that Mr. Abe is a member of the Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership (sas), which is the political arm of the Association of Shinto Shrines. Besides working to scrap Article 9, the sas is also committed to blurring the separation of religion and state. It is dedicated to “educational reforms” that would better nurture a “love of country” among Japanese youth.

sas Director Yutaka Yuzawa believes it is time to undo the changes brought about during the U.S. occupation. “After the war, there was an atmosphere that considered all aspects of the prewar era bad,” he said. “Policies were adopted weakening the relationship between the imperial household and the people … and the most fundamental elements of Japanese history were not taught in the schools.”

Abe also serves as supreme adviser to the Nippon Kaigi, a lobby group committed to restoring lost Japanese values.

University of Auckland Prof. Mark Mullins told Reuters that both “Nippon Kaigi and the Shinto Association basically believe the occupation period brought about … the forced removal of Shinto traditions from public space and public institutions. For them, this was authentic Japanese identity … and to be an independent and authentic Japan again those things need to be restored” (Dec. 11, 2014).

Would Abe really endorse a return to something as arcane and archaic as emperor worship? A clue to the answer came in October 2013 when he became the first Japanese prime minister since World War ii to participate in a ceremony at the Ise Shrine, considered the holiest of Japan’s Shinto institutions. The ceremony entailed rebuilding the shrine and bringing idols to it that represent the emperor’s divine ancestry.

John Breen, a professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto, said the implications of Abe’s participation in the Ise Shrine ceremony are enormous. “Without anyone blinking an eye … it became a state rite,” he said.

Abe and other nationalist leaders continue to make strides as they work toward a constitutional revision and a restoration of Japan’s “lost values.”

These “lost values” were a big part of what drove Japan’s tragic wartime fanaticism. Efforts to restore them—from no less an authority than Japan’s hawkish prime minister—should alarm us.

What’s Ahead?

Journalists sometimes mention the biblical word Armageddon found in Revelation 16:16, but it is rare to hear talk of “the kings of the east” discussed a few verses earlier in that chapter. The Bible shows that these “kings of the east” will be a massive bloc of Asian nations that pool their militaries together in the end time. They do this in order to confront another power bloc led by Germany. Revelation 9:16 says that the Asian army will be comprised of a jaw-dropping 200 million soldiers.

Some specific details of how this Eastern superpower will form in the end time are still unknown, but prophecy is unmistakably clear about the fact that it will happen. And, though it will be led by Russia and China, it will almost certainly include Japan.

The Trumpet reports on Japanese efforts toward remilitarization because each is one small step closer to that 200 million-man army. Each is a step nearer to that unprecedentedly violent conflict. Many Bible passages show that it will be the bloodiest, most destructive conflict in history. Japan’s march toward militarization points to a dark future.

But there is good news! God promises to protect any individuals—whether Japanese, American or any other nationality—who repent and turn to Him. And the hope extends beyond just physical protection in the short term. God has a magnificent plan that involves opening up eternal salvation to every human being who has ever lived. To understand these prophecies in detail, and to understand the urgency and the hope they contain, request a copy of our free booklet Russia and China in Prophecy.