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The realist behind the idealist Constitution

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

This is the last of a three-part series about the life and diplomatic theories of Hitoshi Ashida, who was president and editor-in-chief of The Japan Times from 1933 to 1939, and went on to become prime minister in 1948.


The biggest mystery surrounding late Prime Minister Hitoshi Ashida was his postwar call for Japan to re-militarize despite the constitutional limits imposed by war-renouncing Article 9.

Ashida, known as a staunch anti-military liberal before and during World War II, chaired in 1946 a 14-member special Diet subcommittee that modified and eventually approved the draft of the pacifist Constitution submitted by the Supreme Commander Allied Powers, or SCAP.

Ashida also headed a public organization tasked with enlightening people about what the new democratic, pacifist charter would mean for the people and the country.

“He was a person that should be called ‘Mr. New Constitution,’ ” University of Tsukuba professor Yoshihiko Takenaka wrote in a 2002 treatise analyzing Ashida’s role in enacting it.

But in the early days of the Cold War, Ashida emerged as a leading polemicist after he began calling for the re-militarization of Japan. This helped establish his reputation as a political “proselyte.”

“When I started studying the postwar Occupation period, I had the impression that Ashida is a person difficult to understand,” said Fumio Fukunaga, professor of modern political history at Dokkyo University and one of the two main editors of Ashida’s diary, published two years ago.

“Many people at that time had an image of him as a proselyte. But if you look at him closely, you’ll find he was not, actually,” he said.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Ashida worked as a diplomat at Japan’s embassies in Europe, directly observing the Western powers’ reactions to Japan’s efforts to take over China.

This distanced Ashida from the rising militarism in Japan during that period, experts say.

“I think he is a realist who straightly looked at the reality of international politics. That hasn’t changed in both prewar and postwar years,” said Motoharu Shimokobe, a grandson of Ashida who was the other main editor of the diary.

The war-renouncing Constitution, which took effect in May 1947, was enthusiastically welcomed by the Japanese public, which had paid a heavy price for the militarism that led to the devastating Pacific War and Japan’s defeat.

But unknown to many, the Cold War had already started by that time. After the Korean War broke out in 1950, the United States prompted Japan to set up the predecessor to today’s Self-Defense Forces the same year, to fill the defensive hole caused by the massive deployment of U.S. troops from Japan to the Korean Peninsula.

Since that time, whether to officially re-militarize despite Article 9 or follow the path of unarmed neutrality has been the subject of popular debate between Japan’s political groups throughout the postwar era.

According to Shimokobe, Ashida’s opposition to Japan’s wartime aggression and his postwar call to form a defensive military force reflect his realistic views of international politics.

In the 1950s, Ashida started claiming that he had inserted, without divulging its implications to other committee members, the phrase “In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph” between the first and second paragraphs of Article 9 during the closed special Diet subcommittee sessions on the document he chaired in 1946.

Article 9 reads:

“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.

In order 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.”

Ashida asserted that the phrase in question prohibits Japan only from using force as a means of “settling international disputes.”

Japan is thus allowed to use force in self-defense and when participating in a U.N.-approved international military operation, he claimed.

Whether Ashida actually put the phrase into Article 9 remains a mystery.

The minutes of the 1946 special Diet committee session were disclosed to the public in 1995, but they show that Ashida didn’t propose such an amendment during the session.

Meanwhile, in a 1992 interview with Kobe University professor Makoto Iokibe, retired Col. Charles L. Kades, who oversaw SCAP’s efforts to draft the postwar charter, testified that it was Ashida who first proposed the amendment to him.

Kades said he approved the idea, knowing it would eventually allow Japan to maintain a military force for self-defense in spite of Article 9.

Whatever the truth is, Ashida’s assertion has provided ammunition to politicians and scholars who back the idea of expanding the scope of SDF’s mandate.

In May, a high-profile security policy panel under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged that Ashida’s controversial interpretation of Article 9 be adopted.

The panel, as Ashida did, argued that the SDF should be allowed to participate in a war operation authorized by the United Nations Security Council. Abe, as did past governments, rejected the proposal.

Indeed, no Japanese administration has adopted Ashida’s interpretation of the article. Instead, they opted to leave the meaning of Article 9, the constitutionality of the SDF and the questions of whether and how Japan should participate in a U.N.-led military operation to maintain world peace and order, ambiguous.

Akira Yajima, a researcher at Osaka University who specializes in Ashida’s diplomatic theories, said Ashida called for re-establishment of a military force not just for self-defensive purposes, but also so Japan could participate in U.N.-led military operations.

Ashida was an expert on international law and witnessed the Western countries’ collective efforts after World War I to maintain peace by establishing the League of Nations.

He thus attached great importance to the role played by the League of Nations before the war, and that of the United Nations afterward, Yajima pointed out.

“In that sense, there was no contradiction in Ashida’s arguments” throughout the prewar and postwar periods, Yajima said.

Ashida died in 1959 at the age of 71, without witnessing the dysfunction in the United Nations that was eventually caused by the confrontation between the United States and the now defunct Soviet Union, and the abuse of veto powers in the U.N. Security Council.

More than 50 years after his death, the United Nations has yet to establish the world peace Ashida dreamed of throughout his life.