Last September, tens of thousands of opponents of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gathered outside the National Diet building in Tokyo, often in torrential rain, holding placards and shouting antiwar slogans. They were there to protest the imminent passage of legislation designed to allow Japan’s military to mobilize overseas for the first time in 70 years—a shift they feared would undermine Japan’s pacifistic constitution and encourage adventurism. On September 17, Japan’s normally sedate parliament dissolved into scuffles as opposition politicians tried and failed to prevent a vote on the bills, which ultimately passed.
They and the protesters may have failed in their objective, but they got something right: Japan’s foreign policy is indeed changing. Since returning to power in September 2012, Abe has pushed through a series of institutional, legal, diplomatic, and military reforms that are reshaping Japan’s national security posture and that promise to enhance Japan’s regional role over the coming decade. Responding to rapid changes in the region, particularly the dramatic increase in China’s power, Japan’s prime minister has distanced his country from its postwar pacifism—which was predicated on a benign view of the international system—and unveiled a new, more realist foreign policy.
Japan’s pacifism, which many Japanese see as key to their country’s postwar identity, dates to 1946. That year, the country, still occupied by the United States, accepted a U.S.-drafted constitution forbidding Japan from maintaining a military with the potential to wage war. When the U.S. occupation ended, in 1952, Tokyo essentially outsourced its defense to its new ally, Washington. In the decades that followed, Japanese leaders also put their faith in the liberal international institutions, such as the UN, that defined the postwar world.
In recent years, however, Abe has increased the defense budget and loosened the constitutional restrictions on Japan’s military, passing laws that allow it to cooperate with partners in limited security operations. Bidding for a larger leadership role in Asia, he