The headline “Japan ends half-century ban on weapons exports” could prompt a bit of déjà vu in an American reader. Nearly identical headlines have been appearing in the U.S. media at various points for years. What happened today seems to be less that Japan ended a long-standing policy than that it is continuing to chip away at its postwar pacifism.
Japan first adopted its “three principles” on arms exports in 1967, which prohibited it from selling weapons to communist bloc countries, countries subject to U.N. arms embargoes, or countries involved in or likely to be involved in international conflicts.
In 1976 the three principles were expanded into an effective ban on all arms exports. But over the years, a number of exceptions to the rules have been allowed. Japan has a number of joint development projects with the United States, and has allowed the U.S. to sell missile interceptors it developed to European countries. In 2011 it relaxed the rules further to allow exports for “humanitarian and peaceful purposes,” such as anti-piracy operations or peacekeeping missions.
The new policies will still prohibit exports to countries involved in conflicts or under U.N. sanctions. According to Reuters, “under the new regime, Japan is to focus mainly on nonlethal defense gear such as patrol ships and mine detectors and says it has no plan to export such weapons as tanks and fighter jets.”
Essentially, it seems like Japan is returning to the original 1967 “three principles” amid growing tension with China and concerns about North Korea.
Japan’s shift away from its pacifist credo didn’t begin with current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (who has an interesting family history when it comes to this issue), but it has accelerated under him. In a historical irony, this has happened with the strong support of the United States, whose occupying forces drafted the original pacifist constitution in 1946. Gen. MacArthur couldn’t have anticipated that one day countering Chinese influence and developing markets for U.S. defense firms would be bigger concerns for Washington than Japanese militarism.