Will Japan become Asia’s next autocracy?



Earlier this year, I highlighted a troubling trend in many countries around the world — the move toward illiberal government and away from human rights. Unfortunately, Japan is catching the bug.

This might seem like a strange claim. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has implemented some liberal policies, such as a push for equality for working women, and he has championed increased immigration. Japan’s society has, in general, become more liberal in recent decades, for example by implementing trial by jury. Furthermore, the country recently repealed a long-standing ban on dancing in clubs.

But all this could become largely irrelevant if Abe’s party changes the nation’s Constitution in the ways that it wants.

The Liberal Democratic Party, which is one of the most misnamed political parties in existence, has governed Japan for most of its postwar history, with only the occasional brief interruption. A substantial chunk of the party is philosophically, organizationally and often genetically descended from the political class of Japan’s militarist period. As one might expect, it didn’t completely internalize the liberal values that the U.S. imposed on the country during the American occupation. That faction, once a minority, now appears to be dominant within the party.

The LDP is now campaigning to scrap the U.S.-written Constitution, and replace it with a draft constitution. In a booklet explaining the draft, the LDP states that “Several of the current constitutional provisions are based on the Western-European theory of natural human rights; such provisions therefore [need] to be changed.” In accordance with this idea, the draft constitution allows the state to restrict speech or expression that is “interfering [with] public interest and public order.” The draft constitution also repeals the clause that prohibits the state from granting “political authority” to religious groups — in other words, abandoning the separation of church and state.

Even more worse, the draft constitution adds six new “obligations” that it commands the citizenry to follow. Some of these, such as the obligation to “uphold the Constitution” and help family members, are vague and benign. A third, which requires people to “respect the national anthem and flag,” is similar to constitutional amendments advocated by conservatives in the U.S.

But the other three “obligations” are an obvious move toward illiberalism and autocracy. These state:

“The people must be conscious of the fact that there are responsibilities and obligations in compensation for freedom and rights.” “The people must comply with the public interest and public order.” “The people must obey commands from the State or the subordinate offices thereof in a state of emergency.”

These ideas wouldn’t be out of place in China or Russia. The provision for a “state of emergency” echoes the justification for crackdowns used by many Middle Eastern dictators.

Unfortunately, the deeply illiberal nature of this draft constitution has largely been ignored, especially in the West. Most people in the West hear only about one piece of Japanese constitutional change: the revision of Article 9 of the current constitution, which forbids Japan from having a military.

It is true that the LDP draft constitution does repeal Article 9. And it is true that repealing Article 9 is a big reason why Abe wants constitutional change. But focusing on demilitarization is a dangerous distraction.

Repealing Article 9 is a sensible thing to do. Japan already has a military (called a “Self-Defense Force”), and interprets the demilitarization clause so loosely that it’s unlikely that repealing Article 9 would change much. It is very doubtful that Japan would invade other countries if the constitution were rewritten. Japan might as well call its army an army. But the focus on the military issue has drawn attention — especially Western attention — away from the blow that the draft constitution would deal to the freedom of the Japanese people.

Japan’s people don’t want to live in an illiberal state. More than 80 percent of Japanese people opposed a recent “government secrets” law passed by Abe’s government. And they also oppose the LDPs attempt to ease the procedures for constitutional revision. Japanese people have grown extremely fond of the freedom they have enjoyed in the past seven decades, even if that freedom was initially imposed by a foreign power.

The risk is that the Japanese people might be tricked into signing away their own freedoms. Like Western journalists, they may focus too much on the repeal of Article 9, and ignore the replacement of human rights with “obligations.” It doesn’t help that Japan’s opposition parties are weak, divided and mostly incompetent, while Abe’s government provides the best hope for resuscitating the economy.

Now, it’s important not to overreact to all this. A constitution is just a piece of paper, and not all countries take their constitutions as seriously as the U.S. does. Obviously, if Japan’s leaders want to create an illiberal state, the U.S.-written 1947 Constitution isn’t going to hold them back; in fact, some revisionist members of the LDP may already silently regard its draft constitution as the “true” law of the land. Nor is everything in the draft illiberal — the ban on gender, racial and religious discrimination is preserved, and even extended to the disabled.

But there is real danger in this new constitution. First, it may be part of a wider LDP effort to crack down on civil society, which has become more obstreperous in the wake of poor economic performance and the Fukushima nuclear accident. The government secrets law and other crackdowns on press freedom are a worrying sign — Japan has already slipped from 10th in Reporters Without Borders’ global press freedom ranking in 2010 to 61st in 2015.

Second, adopting the LDP’s draft could be an international relations disaster. If Japan opts for the kind of illiberal democracy that is now the fashion in Turkey and Hungary, it could weaken the country’s regional appeal as an alternative to China’s repressive state. It could also lead to the weakening of the U.S.-Japan alliance — without the glue of shared values holding the alliance together, the U.S. might be tempted to adopt a more neutral posture between an illiberal China and a mostly illiberal Japan.

The optimal solution would be for Japan to repeal Article 9 of its Constitution while leaving the rest untouched. But politically, that seems to be an impossible trick to pull off — any measure that would allow the LDP to change Article 9 would also open the door for the authoritarian “obligations” and the weakening of human rights. The best realistic solution is for Japan to delay rewriting its flawed Constitution at all, and wait for a time when the people in power are not still mentally living in the 1940s.

Japan is at a critical juncture in its history. It has the potential to become a more liberal society, or a much less liberal one. The former choice is both the wise and the moral choice.

Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University.

  • The problem lies with liberals who think constitutions and human rights offer any meaningful protection. They don’t because they are an arbitrary proscription. That is why Japan cannot look to the USA or any other country with a constitution as a source if inspiration. It us by default that Japan drifts back into statism.

    • midnightbrewer

      It’s important not to confuse your own mislabeling of political alignment with the facts of the situation. It’s the ultra-conservatives within the Japanese government who appear to disagree with you. Otherwise they wouldn’t feel the need to revise the constitution in the first place.

      Advocating a lawless state (which is what you’re referring to) doesn’t benefit anybody, especially the autocrats.

      “Liberal” isn’t a four-letter word to be liberally applied (pardon the pun) to everyone who disagrees with you.

      • It’s not I who is ambivalent, it’s the concepts people use. Liberal or libertarian, conservative; they are all turgid concepts. Being anti-constitutionalism doesn’t make one lawless, need ‘laws’in the contemporary context be considered the only basis for regulation. It’s not my intent to support autocrats.

  • А.Березин

    “The best realistic solution is for Japan to delay rewriting its flawed Constitution at all,”

    So the author thinks that if Japanese want to change the Constitution of 1947, brought to them by occupation authorities (i.e. US Army), the best solution is not do that?

    I understand why a US citizen thinks that Japanese are not allowed to change Constitution (even flawed) if it’s made in USA. What I do not understand is why Noah Smith considers possible for any people to live with an imposed (by brute force!) Constitution forever.

    It’s not fair after all.

    • Freedom is not imposed. Clearly they think it’s divine or has come objective or defensive role in serving divine rights. Of course it doesn’t. The Japanese are more respectful of their constitution than the USA. Their interesta are I would suggest purely pragmatic.

      • А.Березин

        “Freedom is not imposed. ”

        I didn’t say that freedom was imposed to Japanese. Moreover, I don’t believe that occupation can bring any type of freedom. Read carefully, please.

        What I did say is: “an imposed (by brute force!) Constitution”

      • That is a ‘concrete distinction’ that ignores that this is an abstract science. There are ‘implications’ to what you say.

  • GIJ

    …and this is what happens when a professor of economics offers thoughts on the possibility of a liberal democracy reverting back to autocracy. I’m not sure if Noah Smith knows this, but extensive research on this topic has yielded the following conclusion: An autocratic country can democratize at any per capita income level, but the reversion of a liberal democracy back to non-democratic status has NEVER occurred above a certain minimum per capita income level (which Japan exceeds by tens of thousands of US dollars in the year 2015).

    The only country in the whole world which challenges the widely held assertion that relatively wealthy democracies are extremely unlikely to revert to non-democratic governance is Argentina in the 1970s. Japan in 2015 is far wealthier and more prosperous than Argentina was in 1976.

    • Oliver Mackie

      Interesting points, in particular the income data, which I wasn’t aware of. Thanks.

    • Steve

      Please define what you mean by “non-democratic”? Are we talking extremes here, as in a dictatorship like say, Franco’s Spain? If so, your basic premise holds true.


      I would suggest that a lot of the freedoms won over the last 100 years by the working class in say, the US, are being eaten away to nothing of real substance, with the political class beholden to the whims of big money, and the people an irrelevance (tell me it isn’t so?) Sure, Americans aren’t carted off for speaking their mind like in say Nazi Germany, and they get to vote every few years, but they have no real power. The appearance of freedom is maintained, but the people are either co-opted through the (free) media rather than coerced, or are totally ineffectual if they dissent with the media again siding with the policy makers (how many times has public policy on any issue been in line with what the public wants in the last 10 years? How many times has it been in line with the corporate paymasters?) Obama won with “yes, we can” – his election won the advertising campaign of the year incidentally (the dictionary definition of “advertising” obviously being, as we all known: “the honest and total dissemination of information about a product or service thus enabling people to make an informed choice”?) – but is his administration really any different to the previous ones – healthcare maybe, but foreign and corporate policy? To conclude, the state doesn’t need to be non-democratic in the Franco sense, the mechanisms of “consent” are much more developed.
      (For more on this if you are interested, see “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Spectre of Inverted Totalitarianism” by Sheldon S. Wolin for instance, http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9175.html – Youtube interview of Wolin.)

      So the stats you mention might be valid in a certain, tiny subset of cases, but we are not talking about a reversion of a liberal democracy back to a completely totalitarian state (yet, at any rate.) This could very easily happen in Japan if Abe and his ilk get their way. But you fail to state your opinion on Abe’s policy manoeuvres, and whether you think there is any danger in what he is doing – or is such opinion irrelevant because, according to your facts and figures of past occurrences, it can’t happen anyway?

      • kyushuphil

        Thank you for your less-than-three-cheer observations.

        America and Japan share the same subservience not only to the big powers that rule in both places, but also to the mass materialism that promises all sorts of beguiling lies also in both.

        It’s a bit mind-numbing how the lies work. They allow, however, schools in both countries to abnegate all humanity.

        In America this happens K-12 now through the cutting of arts programs and the suffocation of standardized testing. It happens also in American “higher” ed by everyone mutually-isolating department by department. And in Japan, Japanese schools? Lots of regimentation. Zero questions, please. Same pressures for standardized tests. And no essay writing anywhere.

        Of course mediocre politicians will more easily serve the money interests when people are besotted with materialism, and through systematic schooling lack much imagination of humanity otherwise.

  • Let’s get something clear: the author, Noah Smith, can’t or doesn’t read Japanese. Why do I say this? Because the alternative would be to call him a liar or a moron. Most of the “facts” are cribbed from a biased English language article in the web site called Japan Focus. The remaining bits are cribbed from other English sources, who themselves can’t read Japanese or cribbed from other English sources. This is clearer in the original non-syndicated version from Bloomberg, were the links to the sources are included in the article.

    For example, this article claims that amendment would repeal Article 9. If he actually read the proposed amendment, he’d know that’s not true; it keeps the first paragraph exactly intact except for adding one word to correct an ambiguity (in the Japanese grammar): it strengthens the original first paragraph by making it crystal clear that the “renouncing” doesn’t just apply to war, but the threat/use of force as well.

    Noah Smith makes a big deal about the “State of Emergency” article, comparing it to middle east dictatorships, China, and Russia.

    Noah Smith appears to not know much about constitutions other than America’s and a little about Japan’s. If he did, he’d know that the State of Emergency article was not copied/inspired by undemocratic autocracies, but rather the Article was modeled after the same similar “State of Emergency” articles from peaceful, non-autocratic G7 European countries like Italy and Germany (also former Axis powers with post WW2 constitutions written for peace and democracy). Some other countries that have Emergency Provisions in their constitution? Oh, France, Ireland, … Well, too many to list (over 150). And most are democratic countries. Japan and the United States are outliers in that they don’t contain Emergency Provisions.

    Why is having Emergency Provisions in a constitution important? You need to define what happens when the government is temporarily unable to function. For example, if a massive tsunami or volcano or earthquake happens (all of these are a realistic scenario in Japan) and wipes out or incapacitates parts or all executive (ex. police), what happens? Anarchy?

    Furthermore, because Noah Smith cribbed from other sources, which are biased, he missed the strong limits and conditions regarding the State of Emergency that the amendment proposes.

    Another example is when Noah Smith claims in alarmist language that the amendment is “abandoning the separation of church and state” because the amendment “repeals the clause that prohibits the state from granting “political authority” to religious groups”. However, he failed to mention the strong limits and conditions placed on that very same amendment, same article (20), in paragraph 3: “Government, local government or other public organization must not do religious education or other religious activities for any specific religion.” That sounds like separation of church and state to me!

    Additionally, he claims about restricting speech or expression that is “interfering [with] public interest and public order.” This is nothing new in any modern constitution; very few democracies allow you to use freedom of speech/expression to incite a crowd to riot and endanger the lives of others. As Noah Smith is an American, he should know this, as the same limit to freedom of speech applies to the United States.

    I could go on and on about other things he missed, but there’s only so long a comment can go on for, so I’ve picked the most egregious whoppers here. He misses the additional rights added to the constitution as well, such as the right to privacy and the protection for discrimination against the disabled.

    Nearly all of his claims rely on “imagination run wild” without being able to read the actual amendment and get the full picture of the conditions and provisions.