An Inoffensive Rearmament: The Making of the Postwar Japanese Army

  • Published
An Inoffensive Rearmament: The Making of the Postwar Japanese Army by Col Frank Kowalski, edited and annotated by Robert D. Eldridge. Naval Institute Press, 2014, 214 pp.

To Col Frank Kowalski, chief of staff for the Civil Affairs Section Annex (CASA) of the American occupation headquarters, Emperor Hirohito's address on 3 May 1952 announcing the return of Japanese sovereignty meant "a new day and a new era had dawned in democratic Japan" (p. 170). However, the path to this new political reality was deeply intertwined with the transforming geopolitical situation in East Asia and formation of the Japanese National Police Reserve (NPR), precursor to the Japanese Self Defense Force. The NPR, which CASA organized, equipped, and trained, was an army formed covertly against the very legal precedent of postwar "disarmament" set by Gen Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. Convinced to never let Japanese militarism threaten the security of the Asia-Pacific again, MacArthur had carried out one of the most intensive disarmament programs in history following World War II.

After 1945 the American occupation forces purged Japanese society of militarists, disbanded the armed forces, and dismantled the nation's industrial capacity for war. Furthermore, the American-crafted Japanese Constitution of 1947 strictly forbade the rearmament of Japan in perpetuity. Article 9 dictated the renunciation of war as a "sovereign right of the nation," the removal of the state's "right of belligerency," and the maintenance of "war potential" (p. 33). To Japanese, American, and international observers of the period, Japan likely would never have a standing military force. However, the rapidly deteriorating geopolitical situation in East Asia in the early Cold War provided the strategic pretext to circumvent the constitution in a manner that trounced what Kowalski termed the "noble aspirations" of Japan (p. 44).

The invasion of South Korea by Soviet-backed North Korea in June 1950 changed the entire calculus of US security in the region. The rapid collapse of the South Korean army required immediate reinforcement from the American occupation forces in Japan. By the end of 1950, all US combat divisions had vacated Japan for the Korean Peninsula. Japan, US logistical nodes, and hundreds of thousands of American dependents were now threatened by the ensuing "gaping power vacuum" (p. 174).

The possibility of communist insurrection and Soviet invasion led Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida to declare the situation a gift by the "Grace of Heaven" (p. 1). In this new security environment, America needed Japan to become a strong ally capable of defending itself and US interests in the country; Japan needed a military. In fact, MacArthur ordered the rearmament of Japan in response to the Korean War. Consisting of four infantry divisions with a combined total of 75,000 troops, the NPR was founded on 10 August 1950 without any reliance on former Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) officers, doctrine, or equipment. However, although Kowalski supplies organizational descriptions, the work is less about the NPR order of battle and more about the underlying political power struggles surrounding its creation.

Kowalski terms the formation of the NPR "a masterpiece of evasion and chicanery" by both the Japanese and Americans (p. 31). Working within the legal confines of its pacifist constitution and MacArthur's previous "demilitarization" policies, CASA rearmed Japan behind a smoke screen of political misinformation, denial, and deception. Misleading nomenclature became a major component of the effort as "reservist" (yobitai) replaced "soldier" (heitai) and tanks became "special vehicles" (p. 121). The supply of American weapons and equipment countered the charge of redeveloping Japanese industrial capacity for war while the conservative Japanese government continually denied any allegations of rearmament within the Diet. Though the NPR would eventually incorporate vetted IJA officers and support a subdued form of the IJA's "warrior religion" (Seishin Kyōiku), the NPR remained an American army in organization, tactics, discipline, and equipment (p. 109).

Colonel Kowalski's account should be understood within the political context of the period. Originally published in Japanese in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War, the work benefited from nearly two decades of hindsight. Kowalski's description of the threat of communist subversion in Japan, though real enough at the time, was certainly influenced--and likely exaggerated--by the lengthy intervening period of anticommunist fervor in the West and the author's own service on the Subversive Activities Control Board (1963-66). Furthermore, Kowalski deplores the United States' "playing God" with the Japanese by undermining their constitution in order to build the NPR, but he fervently carried out his duties as a key American enabler of the rearmament program (p. 44). Perhaps this running contradiction, which occurs throughout the work, was an effort by Kowalski to appeal to both "pro" and "anti" armament advocates within his anticipated Japanese audience. Moreover, his assumption that the Japanese people demonstrated a "deep appreciation for their conquerors" seems quite paternalistic. Certainly, MacArthur's martial emasculation of the militarists and the suppression of communist aligned interests created resentment in sizable portions of the population (p. 7).

Ultimately, An Inoffensive Rearmament offers a unique perspective of early American efforts at building partner capacity in Asia. Such efforts continue to form the core of American military engagement in the region in the form of the Asia-Pacific "pivot." Moreover, North Korea, China, and a resurgent Russia remain the chief antagonists of the US-Japan alliance. Today the conservative Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, inheritor of Prime Minister Yoshida's "pro" rearmament faction, continues to incrementally expand the capacity of the Japanese Self Defense Force in the face of traditional socialist opposition. The Liberal Democratic Party, still confined by Article 9, continues the gradual expansion of Japanese military potential as demonstrated by the lifting of the postwar ban on arms exports in April 2014 and the announcement of new guidelines in April 2015 allowing Japanese forces to defend American forces. Although the US-Japan alliance will endure as the primary pillar of Japanese defense policy for the foreseeable future, progressive rearmament in response to an increasingly assertive China and the perceived withdrawal of American influence is highly probable. Colonel Kowalski's work offers an excellent historical narrative of the politics of remilitarization, well suited for American officials engaged in similar partnership-building efforts in the twenty-first-century Asia-Pacific and beyond.

Viktor M. Stoll
University of Cambridge

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."