OSAKA — On Nov. 19, 1953, then U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon mounted the podium at a special meeting of the Japan-America Society in Tokyo.
Just over four months had passed since the Korean War had ended in an uneasy truce. During the course of the war, Japan, despite its constitutional limitations, provided the U.S. with supplies and — it would later be shown in declassified U.S. documents — covert military aid in sweeping Korean harbors for mines.
Yet Nixon did not use his speech that day to serve up just another round of platitudes. He startled the audience by declaring that Article 9 of Japan’s postwar Constitution, effectively written by a small group of liberal-minded Americans and approved by Gen. Douglas MacArthur as head of the U.S.-led Occupation, had been a mistake.
“This was the clearest indication yet that the U.S. government had changed its mind about the wisdom of Article 9. From here on, pressure would grow on Japan to interpret its Constitution in ways favorable to the United States,” said Chalmers Johnson, head of the Japan Policy Research Institute in California.
With Japan itself having engaged in public debate over possible revisions to the Constitution in recent years, pressure from the U.S. on the issue has been more overt — and is likely to intensify, according to many experts.
Historians generally agree that throughout the Cold War period, the United States saw Japan’s Constitution — especially the war-renouncing Article 9 — as a hindrance to building a stronger military alliance between the two countries.
At the same time, Japanese public support for the Constitution, combined with fears in Asia over a revival of Japanese militarism, meant that U.S. pressure on Japan to revise or interpret the Constitution in a way favorable to American military interests had to be handled carefully and covertly.
Support for Japanese leaders advocating closer military ties with the U.S. — and an eventual constitutional revision — took a variety of forms, including the provision of secret funds to those in the government and the governing Liberal Democratic Party who supported U.S. interests at the expense of a literal interpretation of the Constitution.
“Declassified U.S. government documents show a long history of Central Intelligence Agency payoffs to senior LDP officials in the 1950s and 1960s,” Johnson pointed out.
The money was given for many reasons, not least of which was to encourage Japanese politicians to interpret Article 9 in ways that would not impede the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.
The declassified documents also show that Japan and the U.S. reached secret agreements on allowing the U.S. to do a number of things that most ordinary Japanese would likely view as violating the Constitution, such as storing nuclear weapons on the Ogasawara Islands.
During the 1980s, with Yasuhiro Nakasone as prime minister and Ronald Reagan as U.S. president, both countries had leaders who favored a stronger Japan and — in Nakasone’s case — a new Constitution.
But it was the 1991 Gulf War that fueled U.S. pressure on Japan to do more militarily.
Frustrated that Japan had helped fund the war but had not sent troops, members of the George Bush administration in the early 1990s pushed Japan to make changes.
Politicians such as Ichiro Ozawa, who argued that Japan should become a “normal” country — meaning one with a regular military — were feted by American leaders.
Throughout the 1990s, as debate in Japan over constitutional reform grew, America continued to support those in favor of a stronger military alliance and of Japan playing a greater role — militarily — on the world stage.
Many of those calling for a more aggressive Japan also favored rewriting the Constitution, though America did not go so far as to officially voice support for reforms of this kind.
That began to change with the turn of the century. In October 2000, Richard Armitage, then a private consultant, authored a report on America’s relationship with Japan.
The report, widely read by Japan experts in America and Japanese who favored constitutional reform, said the U.S. and Japan had drifted apart and called for a new policy that would bind the two countries even closer to each other militarily.
A few months later, Armitage was the No. 2 official at the State Department under the newly inaugurated President George W. Bush.
“Armitage is the Bush administration official who probably appears the most in the Japanese media. He constantly pressures Japan to do more militarily and is an ardent supporter of constitutional revision,” says Johnson, who recently authored “The Sorrows of Empire,” a book that strongly criticizes U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War.
Under the current Bush administration, other American officials have also come out more directly in favor of Japan revising its Constitution. Speaking to the International Friendship Exchange Council in Tokyo in June 2003, U.S. Ambassador Howard Baker indicated support for the debate.
“I do not know how Japan will decide its constitutional debate but I am pleased to see the debate has begun. Your leaders and judicial authorities have shown every bit as much ingenuity as have Americans in interpreting your Constitution and your laws, when necessary, in accordance with changed circumstances,” the ambassador said.
Johnson notes that Armitage and other Bush administration officials have found allies among younger-generation conservative Japanese politicians who favor constitutional reform, as well as media bodies such as the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Sankei Shimbun.
During his recent visit to Tokyo, Vice President Dick Cheney, notorious for avoiding the media, was the special guest at a Yomiuri-sponsored symposium on Japan-U.S. relations.
Elsewhere in Japan, U.S. Embassy and Consulate officials admit they go out of their way to court reporters at the Fuji-Sankei group, which also favors Article 9 revisions.
“It is the policy of the U.S. government to target Japanese media that generally support the goals of whatever U.S. administration is in power. Among the mainstream media today, that means the Yomiuri and Fuji-Sankei,” said one U.S. State Department official.
This U.S. “support” is not always appreciated.
Kazuo Aichi, a former Defense Agency chief who served on a House of Councilors committee on constitutional revision and is an advocate of rewriting the entire Constitution, said any changes must be made free from outside pressure.
“In the past, there has been pressure by the U.S. on Japan to revise its Constitution. But what is important now is that changes be made by the Japanese people in their own interest, without outside pressure,” he said.
Given the long history of U.S. pressurizing Japan to revise its Constitution to accommodate U.S. strategic interests, however, it is unlikely that this pressure will wane.
While U.S. government officials speak in general terms, policymakers, academics, and military officials in both countries who favor constitutional changes are exchanging ideas and planning specific strategies for the day when Japan finally revises its Constitution.
For example, in a presentation to a 2001 symposium held in Tokyo, Mark Staples, then an American researcher at Japan’s Defense Agency, suggested a number of moves the U.S. government might take to show support for constitutional reform.
These include having top-level U.S. leaders visit a Self-Defense Forces base in Japan, thereby sending a message that America supports constitutional reforms aimed at making the SDF a full-fledged military force.
Reflecting a commonly held view among those favoring constitutional reform, Staples said he expects the SDF to be a real military force by the end of the decade.
Pressure for change, those following the debate say, is likely to continue no matter who sits in the White House.
“Even if John Kerry is elected president of the U.S. this November, I think there will be little change in U.S. policy toward Japan. The Pentagon, to a degree most people are not aware of, has taken over American diplomacy and will press Japan to make changes in its military structure, and thus its Constitution, no matter who is president,” said Johnson.