What is a “Normal” Japan? Implications for Sino-Japanese Relations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 16

Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) President Ichiro Ozawa

Since the early 1990s, a number of Japanese policymakers and opinion leaders have called for the “normalization” of their country. The notion of a so-called “normal Japan” has been central to the debate over the country’s security policy. The Japanese normalization discourse and its active international security policy have put China on the alert. Beijing is watching closely and is to some extent uneasy about what Japan intends to do under the rubric of normalization.

But what exactly does a “normal Japan” mean? When the Japanese call for the normalization of their country, what kind of Japan do they have in mind? The definition of Japan’s normalization can be ambiguous to outside observers. This partly contributes to the concerns of the Chinese over Tokyo’s intention. In the skeptics’ interpretation, normalization is synonymous with militarization or military buildup. Japan’s normalization may involve various elements, such as the overseas deployment of its Self-Defense Force (SDF) and the revision of its pacifist constitution. Yet, for skeptics, all these elements of normalization are associated with military buildup.

However, an accurate interpretation of the Japanese discourse on normalization should free the Chinese from their anxiety. For the Japanese, the normalization of their country is by no means synonymous with its militarization. For them, a normal Japan means a nation that actively participates in international peacekeeping activities, mainly under the auspices of the United Nations (UN).

Chinese Views on a Normal Japan

The domestic discourse in China is highly skeptical over Tokyo’s security posture. In the past decade, a number of Chinese academics and opinion leaders have observed and commented on Japan’s aspiration to become a normal nation. While some Chinese scholars and opinion leaders are able to understand Japan’s normalization aspiration in the proper context, many others have simply been carried away by their emotions. In much of the Chinese analysis of Japan’s normalization, there is a wide-spread and profound sense of unease and anxiety that this normalization drive could be part of Tokyo’s attempt to aggrandize its military capabilities and to enhance its security influence in East Asia.

According to the most radical Chinese interpretation, normalization is closely associated with the re-emergence of extreme militarism and jingoistic patriotism, both of which were prevalent in Japan during the war era [1].

A slightly more moderate interpretation links normalization with the rise of assertive Japanese nationalism. Such nationalism, according to this interpretation, enables the Japanese to whitewash their war-time history. In other words, against the background of the emergence of this assertive nationalism, a normal Japan distorts the history of World War II in its own favor [2].

In addition, for some Chinese authors, the overseas deployment of the SDF is also an element of normalization. What should be noted here is that, in their view, the purpose of the overseas deployment is egoistic, aimed at containing China and expanding Tokyo’s sphere of influence in military terms [3].

Furthermore, some Chinese observers regard constitutional amendment as an element of normalization. For them, again, Tokyo’s intention is egoistic, aimed at utilizing its military forces as a means to maximize its geopolitical interests.

In any case, all of these views share one focal point: the military dimension of Japan’s normalization. All the elements of normalization identified by the Chinese—extreme militarism, jingoistic patriotism and assertive nationalism, the overseas deployment of the SDF and constitutional change—are associated with militarization. The Chinese believe that even constitutional change will create background conditions for military buildup and the overseas deployment of the SDF will only stimulate such buildup further. However, these interpretations do not necessarily reflect the discourse on the part of the Japanese.

Ozawa’s Normalization Thesis

What does a normal Japan mean for the Japanese? Ichiro Ozawa, the current leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), first introduced this concept in the early 1990s. For him, a normal Japan is a nation that can participate in international peacekeeping activities, mainly under the auspices of the UN. In his 1993 book, Ozawa raised the following issue: “How can Japan, which so depends on world peace and stability, seek to exclude a security role from its international contributions?” [4]

In the book Ozawa also touched upon the issue of the constitution. One of his proposals was to add to the existing constitution a clause concerning Japan’s contribution to the UN’s peacekeeping activities, given that the existing constitution is ambiguous about this matter.

After publishing his book, Ozawa became the leading proponent of constitutional change. He has constantly called for constitutional revision, the main purpose of which, for him, is to enable Japan to take part in international peacekeeping activities.

The discourse of Japan as a normal state developed on the basis of Ozawa’s thesis. In other words, the key point at issue in the normalization debate since the early 1990s has been international peacekeeping activities and constitutional change: whether and to what extent should Japan participate in such activities, through the overseas deployment of its SDF and the changing of its constitution?

This becomes apparent in the editorials in major newspapers. From 1993 to 2006, the top three papers in terms of subscription—i.e., The Yomiuri Shimbun, The Asahi Shimbun, and The Mainichi Shimbun—published a total of 39 editorials which address the issue of a normal Japan. Out of these 39 editorials, 30 explicitly mention Ozawa’s name, and treat the normalization thesis as Ozawa’s argument, and six discuss the notion of normalization or a normal nation in the context of Ozawa’s argument. That is to say, they implicitly define the word normalization in terms of international peacekeeping activities and constitutional change.

The remaining three, however, use this notion in different contexts. In these editorials, normalization is associated with the strengthening of anti-terror cooperation with the United States or the development of the emergency laws, which stipulate measures to be taken should the country come under military attack. After all, even in Japan, there is no common definition of a normal Japan. It is for this reason that the implications of Japanese security policy should be considered carefully. Is normalization a means for Japan to build up its military power? Importantly, overseas operations and constitutional revision might become a means for Tokyo to militarize itself.

Implications of Normalization

For the Japanese, normalization and militarization are by no means synonymous. The results of public opinion surveys show that a majority supports the country’s normalization, but not its militarization.

To begin with, an increasing number of people support Japan’s military contributions overseas. In 1991, the Cabinet Office of Japan surveyed public opinion on the country’s participation in the UN’s peace-keeping operations. At the time, 46 percent was supportive of it, 38 percent disagreed with it, and the rest remained neutral. In contrast, in 2003, when the Cabinet Office conducted a survey on the same issue, the percentage of those who were supportive increased to 76 percent, while the percentage which disagreed decreased to 13 percent [5].

In addition, the Japanese have supported their country’s international contributions outside the framework of the UN. According to a survey in 2005 conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun, 58 percent of the population viewed positively the participation of the SDF to the international reconstruction effort in Iraq [6].

Furthermore, a growing number of people are considering constitutional revision. In 1993, the year in which Ozawa put forward his normalization thesis, The Yomiuri Shimbun found that 50 percent of the respondents supported the idea of constitutional change. In 2005, the percentage rose to 61 percent [7].

Yet the support for normalization exhibited in these survey results by no means suggests that the Japanese support the idea of militarization. According to a survey conducted by the Cabinet Office of Japan in 2006, a majority of the population were not in favor of an increase in the country’s military capabilities: the percentage of those who favored the strengthening of the SDF was only 17 percent [8].

One may point out that Tokyo today is seeking greater military collaboration with the United States, by jointly developing a missile defense system. However, such a system should not been seen as a step toward militarization because it can only be used for defense purposes. If the country sought to expand its sphere of influence, it would have to procure a different set of weapons, including aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, long-range ballistic missiles, and perhaps nuclear weapons. Although these weapons are common to “normal” great powers in the world, Tokyo has not begun to explore these options.

With regard to constitutional change, for the Japanese, the main purpose of this would be to facilitate the country’s active participation in international peacekeeping activities. This is evident in the results of the survey conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun mentioned above. The most common reason, offered by those who supported the idea of constitutional change, has always been the same since 1993: it is difficult for Tokyo to make international contributions under the existing constitution. For the Japanese, constitutional change is a prerequisite for greater international contributions, since the existing constitution leaves the legitimacy of the SDF ambiguous.

It is difficult to envisage for Japan a new constitution of a militaristic nature. In the past at least two drafts of the constitution were proposed by two major organizations: one was written by The Yomiuri Shimbun in 1994, and revised in 2000 and 2004; and the other was proposed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in 2005. Both these drafts plainly renounce war, while making clear the legitimacy of the SDF.

Both organizations propose changes in the second part of Article 9. The existing first paragraph of Article 9 stipulates that 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.” The existing second paragraph states, “In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces … will never be maintained.” This second paragraph is ambiguous, and can be interpreted as destroying the legitimacy of the SDF. The idea behind the two drafts is to clarify this ambiguity.

Implications for Sino-Japanese Relations: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

It can be concluded on the basis of the above observations that China need not be on its guard against Tokyo’s pursuit of normalization. The normalization of Japan is by no means synonymous with its militarization. What the Japanese are seeking is a nation that actively participates in international peacekeeping activities, on the basis of a revised constitution that makes explicitly clear the legitimacy of the SDF.

Nonetheless, the Chinese should be alert to a different sort of “normalization”: they should be careful about making Japan’s normalization a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their inaccurate interpretation of Japan’s normalization—that normalization means militarization—would constitute a basis for Beijing to build up its military forces. Its excessive guard against Japan would bring about the latter’s anxiety, which in turn would lead to its military buildup. In this way, the inaccurate interpretation of Japan’s normalization on the part of the Chinese becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To prevent this kind of unfortunate scenario, the Chinese have to enhance their ability to distinguish accurate from inaccurate information on Japan. While the former is largely objective, the latter is usually tainted with nationalistic or jingoistic agendas. In addition, the Chinese media have to stop using anti-Japanese language, which distorts the way in which Japan is understood among the Chinese public.

The Japanese have to make an effort, too. They should realize that they are partially responsible for the misunderstanding on the part of the Chinese. Their problem concerns their discourse and behavior that do nothing but make the Chinese suspicious of Japan’s intentions. Many Japanese have not realized the sensitivity of historical issues. Without appreciating the sentiment of their Asian neighbors, some Japanese politicians and opinion leaders have been making unreasonable comments and behaving irresponsibly. Unless they change their discourse and behavior, they will not be able to convince the Chinese that a normal Japan will be peaceful.

After all, regional stability in Asian is a function of mutual understanding. When a sense of mutual understanding develops between the Japanese and the Chinese, the normalization of Japan will cease to be an issue. Therefore, the former have to be sensitive to the emotions of the latter, and the latter should try to see Tokyo’s security policy objectively. The promotion of a sense of mutual understanding is the key to stabilizing the Asian region.


1. See, for example, Liu Qiang, “Lun riben ‘zhengchang guojia’ hua”[Analyzing Japan’s State Normalization], Shijie jingji yu zhengzhi [World Economics and Politics], vol. 10, 2004; Lian Hui and Shi Zhe, “Riben: juli ‘zhengchang’ hai sheng ji bu?” [Japan: how far from being normal?], Nanfang Zhoumo [Southern Weekend], August 21, 2003.

2. See, for example, Feng Yongping, “Zhong ri guanxi kunjing jiedu” [An Analysis of the Dilemma in Sino-Japanese Relations], Guoji luntan [International Forum], Vol. 8, No. 1, Jan. 2006; Jiang Yaochun, “Lun zhong ri guanxi” [A Discussion of Sino-Japanese Ties], Guoji wenti yanjiu [International Studies], vol. 5, 2006.

3. See, for example, Gao Lan, “Quanmian jiedu lengzhan hou riben guojia zhanlue de biange yu yingxiang” [A Comprehensive Analysis of the Changes and Implications of Japanese National Strategy in the Post-Cold War Era], Guoji guancha [International Observations], vol. 5, 2005.

4. Ichiro Ozawa, Nihon Kaizou Keikaku (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1993), p. 104; and its English version, Ichiro Ozawa, Blueprint for a New Japan: the Rethinking of a Nation (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1994), p. 95.

5. Cabinet Office of Japan Public Opinion Polls, February 1991

; and Cabinet Office of Japan Public Opinion Polls, January 2003 (accessed 31 July 2008).

6. Yomiuri Shimbun National Public Survey, March 2005.

7. Yomiuri Shimbun National Public Survey, May 1993 and March 2005.

8. Cabinet Office of Japan Public Opinion Polls, February 2006 (accessed 31 July 2008).