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Five things you don't know about Japanese politics

By Edited Sep 5, 2016 4 10

A not so small country

In this day and age you cannot read a single newspaper article without the mention of China somewhere in it. Whether it is China’s growing military strength, growing economy or research it seems that they are the new world power. Back in the 1980s though, everyone said the same thing about Japan. It is almost as though Japan has disappeared off the world map. However, this is very wrong. Here are five facts about Japan’s politics that you won’t be reading in many newspapers.

Number 1. Japan is the Second Largest Shareholder in the IMF

International Monetary Fund Logo

Even though Japan may of surrendered its place as the world’s 2nd largest economy to China, it is still the second largest shareholder in the International Monetary Fund after the US. This has led to some major changes in the IMF, notably in developing countries where Japan has used its experience to change how the IMF engages with troubled countries. In April 2012 they lended $60 billion to the IMF to help with the Eurozone crisis.

They have also a sizeable donator to the United Nations and the UN Development Program where they gave $100 million. In 2000 Japan was the single largest funder of the UNDP. Whether it is Development or banking bail outs, Japanese decisions have an impact way beyond the cosy corners of Tokyo. Whether this will remain the case, however is open to debate.

Number 2. The sizeable North Korean community in Japan

Like a lot of former empire countries, Japan has immigrants from its days as Asia’s predominant super-power. These include a number of Koreans or zainichi – nearly a million of whom still reside. Of these there is a small group of over 150,000 who are members of Chongryon, a Korean residents association that is opposed to integration within Japan and teaches the ideology of North Korea in their own schools of which there are 120. Even more bizarrely these schools are funded by the North Korean and Japanese governments. Here is an old video from 2008 highlighting Chongryon in Japan.   

As North Korea is under heavy economic sanctions it has little diplomatic presence overseas which means organisations like Chongryon have proven vital in providing a mouthpiece to broadcast their voice. The organisation until comparatively recently was also a major provider of funds to North Korea as they ran various business operations which helped alleviate the pressure of international sanctions. The heads of Chongryon are also members of the North Korean parliament.

In 2011, prior to his forced removal over the handling of the North-East Japan earthquake, the Prime Minister, Kan Naoto’s final parting legislation was to maintain Japanese government funding of these schools. The weekly investigative journals in Japan continue to uncover ever stranger ties between certain factions of Japanese political parties

Number 3. The Worldwide Anti-Nuclear Movement

Everyone is aware of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki whose images reverberate throughout many texts on war. What many people don’t know is that Japanese politicians have for many years maintained and lobbied internationally against nuclear weapons. The last commemoration for the Hiroshima bombings was attended by about 70 countries. The mayor of Hiroshima has always had a large international presence because of this. By virtue of being the only acknowledged victim of nuclear bombing, Japan has a voice that the rest of the world is forced to hear, even if they don’t want to.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome)

This together with Japan’s many years of foreign aid has made them many friends both in the UN and the wider international community. Many analysts predict that when the UN is reformed in the future, Japan, along with Brazil and Germany will probably join the Security Council.

Number 4. A large army (or Self Defence force)

Due to the post-war constitution drafted by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces (SCAP), Japan was forced to incorporate the infamous article 9 which states that:

ARTICLE 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the 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. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

Although Japan was not the first country to adopt such an article, many Japanese have used this to vehemently oppose any development of Japan’s armed forces. So it will come as a surprise to many that in 2012 the annual defence spending in Japan was $281.98 billion or roughly on par with Germany and not too far away from the UK. Even though Japan only spends 1% of GDP on defence per year, that vastly exceeds many countries and places them in the top 10, if not top 5 for military spending globally.

How so do you ask?

It was widely acknowledged by both Americans and Japanese in the backdrop of the Cold War that relying entirely on American military protection was not possible. No sooner had the rules been written than Yoshida Shigeru, Japan’s first post-war Prime Minister set about designing a work around.

This did not matter much in the beginning because Japan’s GDP was so small and the industrial base was not as sophisticated as the US. However as GDP grew and grew the 1% became ever larger. Add to that Japan’s world leading R&D expertise and you have some considerable heavy weight technology, like this toy:


Japan even has a military base overseas in Djibouti, to assist in the international mission to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia.

As a result of Japan’s economic might both America and other countries have been trying to encourage greater overseas engagement which is still resisted by many Japanese today. This came to a head in the first Gulf War when Japan was the only non-Allied partner to not contribute any military support other than some financial aid. Things change and by the Iraq War in 2003, pro-military hawks had managed to get the Self Defence Force assisting refuelling for the US Navy and sent a small reconstruction force to Iraq. Although Japan is clearly no where close to be being the junior partner of America that Great Britain is, it is likely that the Japanese will venture overseas in the future.

So as we can see, Japan is not as small or irrelevant to global politics that we think. So the next time you read about China or Asia, remember that small set of islands in the east.



Aug 10, 2012 11:46am
Hi--Well researched and very well written--as a history buff you gave me lots to think about and for that five stars for an excellent article.
Aug 11, 2012 1:46am
Thanks for the thumbs up and the comment. Glad you found it insightful.
Sep 20, 2012 1:19am
Thanks for sharing your knowledge about this. Thumbs from me.
Sep 21, 2012 9:26am
Glad you liked it
Sep 20, 2012 11:24am
Wow.. Very interesting facts...

I knew that Japan doesn't has an army of its own but never knew they has a workaround and spending $281 billion on military..

Thank you very much for the article. Really informative. Thumbs Up.
Sep 21, 2012 9:27am
The 1% rule which has been held since about the 1960s didn't mean much until the economy got really big. This of course excludes the Japanese Coast Guard which is a Navy by any other definition.
Sep 20, 2012 6:50pm
Great article echizen. What struck me as the oddest was the ties with North Korea on education.
I would like to know something about Article 9. Is it still valid? Does it still bind the Japanese governments and parilaments? Because never ("will never be maintained") is a very, very long time. If it is still valid does this mean that the Japanese parliament still has no authority to kill it via an (obviously) enhanced majority constitutional revision? If that is the case then doesn't this mean that Japan still is technically not a sovereign, independent country? I have often heard that Japan in matters of defence is something like the 51st american state, yet I find it hard to believe that this is still the case today.

Let's say that no Japanese politician or political body would dare touch something that big. Could they ask the people to vote on this with a public refrendum? And if the people voted "Yes" to the revision would the Japanese lawmakers listen to them and remove the article?
Another good question would be if Japan has no active army and does not even perform military exercises where do all this money go?
Sep 21, 2012 9:34am
Should you read it up, there are two famous speeches by Yoshida Shigeru, the first post-war Prime Minister. In the first one he argues that Japan cannot possibly have an army because of the constitution. In the second he argues the exact opposite. Article 9 has been criticised and applauded by many Japanese politicians because, on the one hand it forces Japan to be guarded by America (therefore saving them money) but on the other precludes them from overseas work (which is embarassing).

Japan can remilitarise subject to a national referendum which if voted for would repeal the article 9. However because the peace movement is so strong the best they have done (so far) is a more liberal interpretation of the constitution. Despite not being 'sovereign' in the nominal sense Japan has expanded overseas engagements by special bills, laws, permits which help them 'workaround the problem'

Although it is the Self-Defence Forces, they are to all intents and purposes an army. They train with the US and have their own drills. There are enough 'real' threats in the form of China, North and even South Korea to make them train.
Sep 23, 2012 11:00pm
Thanks a lot for your reply echizen, you addressed my questions well. I am very interested in everything related to Japan. I am a pacifist myself and I would prefer my country (Greece) maintained no army, navy or air-froce at all, particularly nowadays with the huge crisis that has hit us hard. If all these tons of money went to public infrastucture, welfare and education we would be something like Norway today. Unfortunately this cannot be the case when the friendly neighbour on our east is armed to the teeth. A bilateral disarmament is also out of the question: the Americans, Germans and French wouldn't let us. And our politicians are either afraid to raise objections, take cuts off the defence contracts or both.
Sep 23, 2012 3:49am
Interesting information on Japan that is not normally talked about.
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