July 8th, 2008
Japan's About-Face
Filmmaker Notes: Micah Fink

Filmmaker Micah Fink talks about how and why he was granted the access necessary to make Japan’s About-Face. Fink also reflects on whether Japan is still a pacifist nation.

Japan’s About-Face filmmaker Micah Fink (right)

When I first began researching for the film, I was told rather bluntly by a number of U.S.-based Japan specialists that it would be impossible. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution states that Japan is prohibited from possessing any military forces, despite the present-day reality that the military budget of Japan ranks fifth in the world. This contradiction, and the presence of a strong peace movement, makes Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) one of the more politically sensitive organizations in contemporary Japanese life. To the amazement of nearly everyone involved in the project, I was ultimately given access to a diverse pool of SDF officers, the cadets and faculty at the National Defense Academy, and various military facilities across Japan. The Ministry of Defense (MOD) and the various branches of the SDF were quite cooperative, and even enthusiastic about the project.

Why did the MOD agree to work with me? Here are a few possible factors:

U.S. Political Context

America has dozens of military allies, while Japan has only one – the United States. I first approached the MOD in the fall 2007, just before the presidential primaries in the U.S. It became clear that Japanese officials were watching the U.S. electoral race very closely. In my research, I learned that the SDF and MOD have relied for many years on a few long-established, often Republican, relationships in Washington. Many SDF officers and officials expressed fear as to whether Democrats are as strongly committed to the U.S.-Japan military alliance as Republicans. When President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, took office, he visited China before Japan – which was widely perceived as a diplomatic snub. Even a small shift in U.S. policy toward Asia can create enormous ripples in Japan and, as a senior Japanese official told me, they are concerned that a seismic political shift is about to take place in the U.S.

Fears of Abandonment

Many people, both inside and outside the SDF and the MOD, told me that regardless of which party wins the presidential election, U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan might still be compromised if:

  1. The U.S. continues to act unilaterally (without consulting its allies) in shaping foreign policy
  2. The U.S. becomes militarily over-committed elsewhere in the world, or
  3. If the Japanese do not contribute more actively to America’s globe-spanning military campaigns with a “boots on the ground” quid for our “defense of Japan” pro-quo.

This last issue probably contributed most to the MOD’s decision to cooperate with filming. In a policy paper issued last year, the MOD elevated “overseas activities” to one of the principal missions of the SDF. These missions, mostly humanitarian and peacekeeping in nature, have been going on since the early 1990s, but were not given the same priority as the defense of Japan. The deployment of troops to Iraq also fell into this subordinate category. Today, the MOD is eager to promote a new, forward-deployed, “defensive” posture to the world, particularly to Japan’s critics in the U.S. A documentary about their activities would probably help this cause.

Institutional Changes

When I arrived in Tokyo in January 2008, I first met with representatives of the MOD’s Office for International Public Affairs. This new department was created about a year earlier, expressly for the purpose of increasing the profile of the MOD and the SDF on the world stage. The development of the film corresponded with a newly institutionalized willingness for the MOD and the SDF to explain themselves to the world. One small facet of this new orientation can be seen in the design of the MOD’s new logo, which looks like a pointy cartoon person hugging the earth.

Harnessing Foreign Pressure

I sensed a great deal of frustration among the SDF officers and MOD officials I met. They struggle with the glacial pace of the Japanese political system in dealing with the inconsistencies between the reality of the SDF and the Constitution. Because these issues are so politically sensitive in Japan – and because all members of the MOD and SDF vow to uphold and defend the Constitution – it places them in a curious bind. How do they call for reform without appearing to be disloyal? It was also suggested to me that an open, straight-forward (American-style) discussion of these delicate issues might best be started by a foreigner – someone from outside of the Japanese cultural battlefield. From this perspective, I hope my film will be viewed in Japan and help generate a fresh discussion about the SDF and its evolving role in Japanese security issues.

Still A Pacifist Nation?

The Japanese public has long embraced the image of one of the world’s leading pacifist nations. The terms of Article 9 of the Constitution and a general refusal to send troops overseas during the Cold War allowed them to maintain this self-image – even though their national security was in the hands of the U.S. military, and backed up by America’s nuclear arsenal. But today, this attachment to pacifism in Japan seems to be fading, particularly among young people. There is a sense that Japan will eventually need to stand on its own militarily (either to act as a reliable U.S. ally or to protect itself). China is rising both economically and militarily. North Korea has nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Furthermore, Japan’s only military ally, the U.S., has entered an uncertain phase in its dominance as a world power.

In this evolving context, Japanese people are beginning to realize that Japan might need strong and robust military forces of its own. And while some in Japan hesitate about formally calling the SDF a military, much more tangible milestones are being passed.

The MOD has already expanded its institutional standing (it was elevated from an “agency” to an independent “ministry” last year), and is laying the legal foundations for a larger and more engaged military presence around the world. While Japanese politicians are still wrestling with the political legacies of World War II, the Diet continues to pass provisional laws allowing the SDF to operate with increasing scope, carefully avoiding the charged issue of Constitutional revision.

The general public also seems aware that the role of the SDF is changing, although they are unclear about the details. Most of the people I spoke with – even those on the peace-movement side – expressed concern that their region of the world is becoming less secure and felt that the SDF has a legitimate role to play in defending their nation and its national interests. No one I met actually called for its abolition.

The cadets at the National Defense Academy and the officers of the SDF also seem aware of this increasing instability in their region. They now contemplate dangerous missions abroad as the Constitution they have sworn to uphold may soon be changing. They acknowledge that their role is expanding and feel that more change is inevitable. Not surprisingly, perhaps, most of the officers I met shared the belief that peace can only be maintained through vigilance and strength – expressing their readiness to follow whatever orders and missions they are given.

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