Revising the war-renouncing Constitution, which has not seen a single change since it was introduced in 1947, is increasingly becoming a possibility, although a public consensus is still elusive on the most sensitive issue of what to do with Article 9.
In the political arena, discussions by constitutional review research committees set up in both chambers of the Diet in 2000 are entering their final stage. Meanwhile, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan are working on their own drafts of revisions.
Public surveys show an increasing number of people are in favor of revising the Constitution, and voters are the last judge on the matter: Revising the Constitution requires a majority approval by the public following endorsement by two-thirds of the members of both the Upper and Lower houses.
The Asahi Shimbun, which has traditionally taken a cautious position on constitutional change, reported in its Saturday morning edition that 53 percent of the 1,945 respondents to a survey last month favored revising the Constitution.
It was the first time that such respondents formed a majority since the Asahi started taking polls on the subject in 1995, it said.
While parliamentary debate covers all areas of the Constitution, the issue that commands by far the greatest public interest, according to polls and letters sent to the Lower House constitutional research committee, is the war-renouncing Article 9, which in word prohibits the nation from possessing a military force.
The general direction of the argument by advocates of revision is that the Constitution should be amended to recognize Japan’s right to self-defense, and to enable use of the Self-Defense Forces in international efforts. Some advocates also say the supreme code should be amended to enable Japan to engage in collective defense with its allies.
Yet, a major portion of the public still appears undecided when asked specifically about what to do with Article 9.
“It is all right for the Self-Defense Forces to join emergency and disaster relief activities,” Keisuke Nakata, a senior law student, said at the end of a recent class on constitutional issues at Waseda University. He remained silent during the class, whose discussion theme was “the Constitution and international contribution.”
“But when we are asked what the nation should do in conflict zones where the use of force is required, I could not come up with an answer,” he said.
Like Nakata, many Japanese appear trapped between aspirations for the nation to contribute to the global society and doubts about the wisdom of taking part in activities that could involve the use of force.
Public opinion has been sharply split over the deployment of troops to Iraq — Japan’s first military dispatch since World War II to a country experiencing conflict.
While the Asahi poll showed a majority supporting a constitutional amendment, 60 percent of the respondents said they do not want Article 9 to be changed, though this figure was down 14 points from the last survey in 2001.
A survey conducted by the more conservative Yomiuri Shimbun in March showed that a record 65 percent of the 1,823 respondents want the Constitution to be revised. Yet the percentage of those specifically favoring a change to Article 9 was 44 percent.
In the Yomiuri poll, the biggest reason cited by those favoring a constitutional revision was that Japan cannot properly respond to “new challenges and demands such as making international contribution” under the constraints of the current Constitution.
The need for “international contribution” was also the biggest factor cited by supporters of changing Article 9 in the Asahi poll, which increased from 17 percent in the previous survey to 31 percent, according to the newspaper.
Political debate on constitutional revisions grew active after the 1991 Gulf War. Many government leaders and bureaucrats felt it was a diplomatic humiliation that Japan, while contributing 1.3 trillion yen to the war effort by the U.S.-led multinational forces, was unable to provide any personnel.
Until then, the general atmosphere in Japan was that it was taboo even to bring up the subject of revising the Constitution, which was effectively imposed by the U.S. occupation authorities, given its history of wartime aggression against its Asian neighbors.
So it was a departure from such postwar sentiment when some politicians began to air their ideas on constitutional revisions in the early 1990s.
In the media, the Yomiuri Shimbun, the nation’s largest circulation daily, even printed its own draft proposals for revising the supreme law — first in 1994 and then in 2000 — advocating, among other things, the recognition of the nation’s right to defend itself and use of the SDF to contribute to international efforts.
Public opinion also appears to have shifted gradually in favor of a constitutional revision as SDF troops joined a series of United Nations-backed peacekeeping missions in the 1990s.
But some advocates of revision say they have begun to harbor doubts since the SDF dispatch to Iraq.
In deciding to send the SDF, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi cited, among other reasons, the need to bolster Japan’s alliance with the United States.
“I don’t want to make Japan a country that blindly follows the United States like its subordinate state. Article 9 may serve as a brake,” said Setsu Kobayashi, a law professor at Keio University.
Kobayashi has long been a lone advocate, among constitutional lawyers, for revising Article 9 to make it clear that Japan can defend itself with the SDF. But he said he no longer advocates a revision, at least for now.
“I am frightened by the government, which makes light of the law,” Kobayashi said, referring to how the government justified the SDF dispatch despite the fighting going on in Iraq by saying the SDF personnel would operate only in “noncombat zones.”
“They say they are the ones to decide what is a noncombatant zone,” he said. But there is no such thing as a noncombat zone in Iraq, at least according to international law, because a guerrilla war is taking place there, he argued.
At the Waseda University class on constitutional study, questions were raised about the definition of “international contribution.”
“We should examine what international society means,” said Ryosuke Kanba, a senior. “It looks so narrow” if support for the U.S.-led military operation is to be considered as contributing to international society, he said.
“The player of ‘international contribution’ should not be limited to the SDF,” said Yuki Oyama, a junior. She quoted an argument by an opposition lawmaker in the Diet that nongovernmental organizations can act more efficiently and economically than SDF troops in providing aid in troubled areas.
In closing the class, Asaho Mizushima, a law professor who supervised the seminar, told students to examine the definition of “international public interests.”
“There are a lot of demands in nation-building . . . and we must respond to the demands,” he said. “But when we choose a military option, we face constraints of the Constitution. . . . What is being asked now is whether Japan would join the use of force of a coalition formed outside the framework of the U.N.”
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