Among the achievements of the Allied Occupation of Japan after World War II were the successful demilitarization of Japan and the laying of the foundations for the development of truly democratic institutions in Japan. A major element in the democratic process was the Japanese Constitution of 1946, which replaced the less than democratic Meiji Constitution.

Some Japanese argue that the 1946 Constitution is invalid as it was imposed on Japan by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. But the Meiji Constitution of 1889 was imposed on the Japanese people by Meiji oligarchs in a high-handed manner. It was described as having been granted as a favor to the Japanese people by the Emperor, who was “sacred and inviolable.” It was authoritarian in nature and designed to bolster the Emperor’s powers and prestige. The Emperor, who was described as the nation’s “spiritual pivot,” was the only person who could amend the Constitution.

If Japan was to play a peaceful role after the war and develop into a real parliamentary democracy, the Meiji Constitution clearly had to be rewritten. The first draft produced by a Japanese committee did not provide an adequate foundation for democratic processes to take root in Japan. An American committee then outlined what was needed and the final Japanese draft followed the basic concepts set out in the American draft. This Japanese draft, in which there was substantial Japanese input, was debated at length in and approved by the Diet. The Meiji Constitution was never debated in or approved by the Diet

If Japan had no democratic constitution and it was necessary for constitution making to start again from scratch, some the clauses that might emerge would no doubt differ from those in 1946. But Japan has a viable and democratic constitution and there is no need to begin again. History cannot be simply ignored.

There seem to be four main issues on which right-wing nationalists would like to see changes. The first is a procedural one. Amendments to the present constitution have to be approved not only by a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet but also by a majority of votes in a national referendum. The nationalists would like to amend this clause to make a simple majority in the Diet sufficient for approval of amendments. The Liberal Democratic Party victory in the last elections for the Lower and Upper Houses brings such a change within the bound of possibility if the LDP’s allies vote for it.

The nationalist focus, however, is on Article 9, which renounces war and “the right of belligerence of the state.” It also pledges that “land, sea and air forces as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Notwithstanding Article 9, Japan has developed formidable “self-defense” forces and has modern and effective weapons’.

What purpose would be served by amending Article 9?

The Japanese people do not want to see Japan remilitarized. If the objective is to enable Japan to take part in U.N. peace-keeping operations and support its U.S. ally this could surely be ensured by amendments to the laws under which the Self-Defense Forces were established.

In view of past history any amendment to Article 9 would immediately arouse Chinese and Korean suspicions, and would heighten tension in East Asia. It would also be regarded with concern in Southeast Asia and by Japan’s friends in the West. It would definitely not be in Japan’s national interest in the foreseeable future to press an amendment to article 9.

Right-wing nationalists would also like to see an amendment that would alter the status of the Emperor from “symbol of the people” to “sovereign” of Japan. They probably realize that any attempt to give the Emperor “divine status” or to describe him in similar terms to those used in the Meiji Constitution would be going too far at this time, but they continue to see the Imperial institution as unique and not as just another constitutional monarchy.

This sort of discussion is dangerous for Japan’s national interests as it works against internationalization and liberalization, both of which Japan needs to embrace. It also revives ideas behind the prewar nationalist cult of state Shinto, which was abolished under the new Constitution and which was used to bolster Japanese militarism.

There has also been talk among extremists of the “desirability” of watering down some of the human rights clauses, which in their view undermine Japanese traditional values. Any changes that seemed to limit human rights in Japan would be condemned by all Japan’s international friends. Any attempt in this context to alter, for instance, the article about equality between the sexes would be totally contrary to Japanese national interests and to the policies, included in “Abenomics,” designed to make better use of Japan’s women in society. The position of women in Japan remains in many respects behind that in other advanced economies.

Members of the LDP talk a great deal about patriotism and the flag. Most countries have reasons for elements of national pride. The Americans revere the Stars and Stripes and British people in moments of sporting success wrap themselves in the Union Jack. But there is something chilling about the way in which Japanese patriotism is promoted by Japanese nationalists, some of whom seem to regard Japan’s wartime military leaders as heroes rather than war criminals.

Any moves at this time to start the process of amending the Constitution would be bound to arouse strong feelings both in Japan and abroad. Japanese leaders will make a serious mistake and will be acting against Japan’s national interests if they go this route.

Japan faces enough serious economic and foreign policy issues without adding the perils associated with amending the constitution. We should all have learned by now that those who play with fire are likely to get burned.

Hugh Cortazzi served as ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.

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