This year marks the 70th anniversary of Japan’s post-war constitution, in effect since 1947. Rather than celebrate the success of this constitution, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shocked Japan and its neighboring countries by making a bold promise to revise Japan’s constitution. Abe chose the year 2020 as a goal for implementing the new constitution, coinciding with the Tokyo Summer Olympics. Most notable in his revision is the alteration of Article 9, in which Japan renounces its right to go to war. Reforming this Article is controversial, and public debates on the plan is fierce.
Article 9 says 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,” and goes on to say that “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.” This passage is credited with the nation’s pacifist stance ever since its defeat in World War II. As a result, Japan does not have an army, but rather a self-defense force (SDF). How far this SDF can go however, remains controversial.
The SDF was created in 1954 under pressure of the United States, against the background of the US-Japan Security Treaty. Their action has ever since been restricted to protecting Japanese sovereignty. However, its existence is disputed because of the possibility that it is in violation of the principle of Article 9. Abe hopes to add a provision to Article 9 that would acknowledge the constitutionality of the SDF, and thus escape from its controversial relationship to the Constitution. He made a strong argument that it is irresponsible in the current situation to deny the SDF and its members constitutionality, as they are risking their life protecting the security of Japan. This is especially true in the current security environment, including an aggressive North Korea and a stronger China.
As Article 9 came in effect before establishment of SDF, the article has been unclear on their contributions to Japan’s national security, which opens up for different kinds of interpretations by government. Abe and his party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) argue that the article allows SDF’s contributions to Collective Self-Defense, especially within the security alliance with the USA. To strengthen their point, the LDP passed legislation in 2015 to allow this, but it was deeply unpopular in Japan – the public worries that Washington might drag Tokyo into a conflict that has little to do with Japan’s security, leading to a war that is not only unwanted, but also unconstitutional. Even the Constitutional scholars – picked by the LDP – have doubts about this legislation in constitutional terms.
Abe’s newest proposal thus further solidifies the position of the SDF, but before his new constitution can be put into practice, a few hurdles need to be overcome. A constitutional revision requires a two-third majority in both houses of parliament, and also needs at least 50% of the votes in a national referendum.
For now, it seems Abe might get his way. The LDP has a large majority in both parliaments, and enjoys strong public support. Moreover, a recent poll by the public broadcaster NHK found that more people support the revision than people who oppose it: 43% of the Japanese supported it, while 37% opposed. This may make it possible to provide political cover for Japan to build SDF up to one of the world’s ten best equipped and funded “militaries”.
Abe’s opponents, the liberals, meanwhile argue that many Japanese may not be able to familiarize themselves with the new constitution, despite their support. They see Article 9 as the ultimate symbol of Japan’s post war identity, as the nation with strong commitment to peace, and think it should only be revised after an open and democratic process. They argue that the polling results may be because the draft of the revision has not been unveiled yet. Abe and LDP once unveiled their own draft of a new constitution, in 2012, which was criticized and called too conservative and militaristic.
Indeed, there is no guarantee that Abe’s revision will not be too conservative and militaristic. Especially concerning Article 9 and the SDF, there is fear that Japan’s militaristic, pre-war political system might be revived. Abe and most of his cabinet members are supporters of Nippon Kaigi (the Japan Conference), the country’s largest right-wing and nationalist organization. This organization has shown its importance and influence as Abe’s first reveal of the statement on constitutional revision took place during their event.
The group, which has strong influences on Japanese politics via the LDP, aims to improve Japan’s reputation and sovereignty, wishes to transform the SDF into a true army, and finally to restore the Emperor’s political powers. The group encourages its members, including Abe, to continue to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, paying homage to Japan’s war dead. Those objectives infuriate neighboring countries like China and South Korea, since they are a sign of a rise in Japanese militarism and imperialism again. Abe’s continued visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are controversial, since it is also the place where the spirits of the Class A war criminals from World War II were settled. That’s what the shrine symbolizes in China’s and South Korea’s eyes.
Supporting Abe’s desire for constitutional revision or not, Japan is facing a difficult dilemma. The issue of the constitutionality of the SDF and Japan’s changing security environment is not going away. Sustaining national security and the commitment to peace at the same time is a very difficult goal to pursue under this current constitution. For Abe, his party of LDP, and Nippon Kaigi, revision of the constitution is their dream solution to this dilemma. However, the objectives of this very same group of people cause concerns about the risk of resuming Japan’s pre-war militarism and imperialism. For Japanese people, understanding of the dilemma of the current constitution to their national security and the real objectives of their leader is very important in arguments over this constitution revision. Both sides of argument should be able to put forward their arguments freely.