Book Review: Japan’s Aging Peace: Pacificism and Militarism in the Twenty-First Century

  • Published
  • By Author: Tom Phuong Le; Reviewer: Capt Patrick Taylor, USAF



Japan’s Aging Peace: Pacificism and Militarism in the Twenty-First Century, by Tom Phuong Le. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021. 392pp.


Tom Phuong Le’s work demonstrates that both internal and external forces shape Japan’s security policies and that Japanese antimilitarism is a resilient influence on the society. An associate professor of politics at Pomona College, California, Le has spent years living and studying in Japan. With Japan’s Aging Peace, he endeavors to reevaluate the arguments surrounding Japanese militarism and decisions to use force. According to Le, traditional schools of thought offer incomplete analyses of the content and direction of Japanese security policy, and scholars must challenge fundamental assumptions. Most importantly, the international community should recognize that there are multiple degrees of antimilitarism and that the Japanese version allows for limited uses of force. This concept gives Japan the flexibility to develop its defense capabilities without committing to remilitarization and normalizing or employing its armed forces in the same fashion as other nations.

In investigating the environments that shape Japanese security policies, Le surveys the physical restraints and ideational constraints unique to the country. His restraints-constraints framework maps limitations to remilitarization in both capability and intent. While the latter portion of this approach is heavily based in constructivism, Le acknowledges that certain factors are incongruent with the theory. For example, the aging population and declining birthrate that strain manning in the Japanese Self Defense Force (JSDF). In addition, Le highlights a series of roadblocks to normalization: an underdeveloped defense sector and outdated facilities; strict immigration policies and gender inequalities that exacerbate issues with manning deficiencies in the JSDF; and the utilization of the JSDF in humanitarian disaster and relief operations, which generates public support but has an adverse effect on combat readiness. Le believes that even if the Japanese had the will to remilitarize and normalize, they likely lack the capability to do so.

However, the author’s argument is strongest when addressing the normative aspects of Japanese culture that constrain militarism. Le examines how the trauma of World War II left an indelible mark on the country’s psyche and drove the Japanese to adopt a peaceful national identity. Subsequent generations reinforced this sense of self, which became inextricably linked to being Japanese. Japan’s Aging Peace demonstrates that this systemic condition creates an “antimilitarism ecosystem” with grassroots support. The antimilitarism ecosystem tempers urges to react militarily to security threats such as Chinese expansionism and North Korean missile launches. The average Japanese citizen perceives the rapid militarization of the JSDF as a liability that could spark a regional security dilemma and ruin Japanese goodwill on the global stage. Le points out that even hawkish Japanese leaders feel compelled to reassure domestic and international audiences that the JSDF will not behave like a normal military.

Le successfully crafts a case for why Japanese security policy is more nuanced than simply state-on-state power balancing and advocates for incorporating constructivism into the conversation. However, there are shortcomings in his argument. Le’s eagerness to challenge realism’s interpretation of the security environment causes him to downplay the threats posed by China and other regional actors. One could surmise from reading Japan’s Aging Peace that the country is in no real danger from outside forces, except if Japan were to enter a conflict in support of the United States. Le dismisses classic balancing behavior found in realism and even claims that changes in the security environment do not result in changes to security policy. Threats from China, Russia, and North Korea have undeniably existed through the same period of extended peace in Japan, but that does not mean they are less problematic or influential in security decisions today. While Le points out that Japan has opted to engage its neighbors economically and diplomatically to maintain peace and the balance of power, one could counter by asking whether these choices encourage aggressive behavior from adversaries and leave Japan in a weaker position as of late.

Chinese, North Korean, and Russia military activities are increasing in provocativeness. Le, however, remains steadfast in his assessment that physical constraints and ideational restraints in the antimilitarism ecosystem stifle the will and the means to challenge regional threats with armed forces. Therefore, the idea is not fully engaged in his work. Nevertheless, internal drivers to modify Article 9 of the Constitution and win public support for a stronger, more proactive JSDF still exist. Le wants the reader to understand that external threats do not have a monopoly over security policy decisions, but in stressing constructivism, he detracts from regional dangers and discounts their effects on the Japanese calculus. Further conjecture into why and how the country would deploy the JSDF to preserve the balance of power deserves greater scrutiny by the author.

Ultimately, Japan’s Aging Peace is a thought-provoking book. Readers unfamiliar with the peculiarities of Japanese peace culture and the catalysts that formed it will appreciate the in-depth analysis. Those who have studied Japan will have an opportunity to reassess their own views. By employing the restraints-constraints framework, Le offers an innovative means to analyze Japanese remilitarization—a topic that will remain important as the United States calls on Japan to bear more of the security burden in East Asia. Qualifications aside, there is reason to consider antimilitarism and cultural norms as the core determinants in Japanese security policy decisions.

Capt Patrick Taylor, USAF

Captain Patrick Taylor is a USAF staff officer at Headquarters United States Forces, Japan, where he briefs top decision makers on activities in the INDOPACOM theater. His contributions help maintain and strengthening the US-Japan alliance. He is also a Troy University graduate student, pursuing a degree in international relations with a regional focus on Asia.



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