Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party seem determined to revise the Constitution soon. Japan seems very polarized concerning this issue, with the right strongly supporting it and most other Japanese opposed, because they do not want any revision to the “Peace Constitution,” especially sacred Article 9. This article was put in the Constitution by the U.S. Occupation in 1947 and literally says Japan may not engage in war or have a standing military. Even with its quarter-million strong Self-Defense Forces, the Constitution has limited Japan’s military strictly to only its own defense and to other missions in noncombat roles.

I am not a rightist—I abhor the right’s denial of the Imperial Army’s atrocities in the Pacific War and also believe Japan should not support unconditionally every military action by the United States. I also believe that if every country in the world had a constitution that limited its military to only self-defense, the world might be a better place. Yet I think even non-rightist Japanese might consider supporting some constitutional revisions. I argue this because the gap between the wording of the Constitution and the way it has come to be interpreted and implemented without revision or adequate judicial review is unhealthy for Japan’s democracy, and actually aids the administration of the moment in doing what it wants. Let me explain.

Through the years the interpretation of Article 9 has changed, first by the Occupation and later by Japanese governments (and supported by the Supreme Court), whose interpretation was that it was meant to outlaw “aggressive war” and military, but that Japan was entitled, like all nations, to the “inherent right of self-defense.”

Most Japanese liberals (and further left) oppose this strenuously on the grounds that it changes Japan’s “Pacifist state” and may involve Japan in war. No one can predict the future or how a government may use the interpretation of the Constitution, and fear of involvement in war is a legitimate concern. But we can judge how governments have used the current Constitution in the past and make some informed judgments without emotional knee-jerk reactions from the right or left. And let us get one thing clear: Japan’s policies have never been “pacifist.” True pacifists do not allow other countries to protect them and fight their battles nor do they believe in only self-defense.

Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida in the early 1950s used Article 9 to develop a set of goals and policies to cope with U.S. pressure to totally rearm. He needed to pacify the U.S. somehow to get it to grant Japan’s independence again and continue to protect Japan. By giving the U.S. as many bases in Japan as it wanted, rearming only partially, and pleading Article 9 and Japan’s need to become a capitalist economic showcase by concentrating on economic growth, he persuaded the U.S. to accept this compromise.

This “defense only” interpretation and the “Yoshida Doctrine” — as it came to be called, though Yoshida himself never called it that — remained the underpinning of Japan’s foreign and security policy thereafter. Subsequent administrations accepted the Yoshida Doctrine without attempting to revise the Constitution. Japan engaging in “self-defense” to protect the U.S. under any circumstances was interpreted as a violation of the postwar interpretation of Article 9.

All this began to change when the Cold War ended, China arose as a major military power, and North Korea became a threatening and unpredictable neighbor. The Yoshida Doctrine became increasingly irrelevant. Japan needed the U.S. even more than during the Cold War. Then the debacle of the Persian Gulf War when Japan contributed $13 billion to Kuwait’s reconstruction but no personnel and got only international criticism for such passive support showed the increasing irrelevance of the doctrine. The U.S. expected greater Japanese participation in the alliance than just providing bases. The excuse of Article 9 no longer was as effective now that Japan was a major economic power and was on the front line of its own more dangerous regional threats.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi understood this and stretched the interpretation by sending the Ground Self-Defense Force to Iraq for reconstruction efforts and the Maritime Self-Defense Force to the Indian Ocean in support of coalition military activities in Afghanistan. Indirectly, Koizumi was practicing “collective self-defense” — even if of a noncombat nature — through the back door without acknowledging it. Now Abe’s Cabinet has formalized collective self-defense and more. Both Koizumi and the Democratic Party of Japan in its three years in power also built up the Ballistic Missile Defense system in cooperation with the U.S., which could make it almost impossible for Japan to avoid protecting U.S. assets in Japan. Yet the polls show that the public doesn’t really accept revision and clings to the basic posture of the Yoshida Doctrine.

For years I felt the same way — Article 9 should be sacred. But I changed my mind in the last few years as I watched Koizumi, then the DPJ and now Abe change and revise the interpretation of Article 9 to legitimize their policies of adjustment to Japan’s new security environment. I asked myself whether it was healthy for any democracy to have a written constitution’s wording that is so divorced from the reality on the ground. I also asked myself whether it was right for any democracy to have its interpretation of such an important, core policy as national security and the document that legitimizes the state determined solely by each administration’s goals and policies.

My answer eventually became “no.” Would not Japan be better off with a constitutional revision of Article 9 that preserved its “Self-Defense Only” core and specified clearly what this meant and the conditions under which Japan could use its military and when it could not? Then let the courts decide whether an administration’s policies meet the criteria in the Constitution. That’s the way most democracies with written constitutions are supposed to work.

Whether you support Abe’s policies or not isn’t the issue — the issue is how Japan’s democracy is going to operate in the future: leaving constitutional interpretation solely in the hands of each administration to change (often without even the passage of a bill in the Diet) when it has enough support; or bringing the wording of the Constitution in line with reality and placing government policies under the potential constraints of clearer judicial review, as is the case in Germany, which also has a “Peace Constitution.”

Perhaps this is a consideration that needs to be added to the current polarized left-right ideological extremes in the debate about constitutional revision.

Ellis S. Krauss is a professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, who has taught and written about Japan’s foreign policy and politics for 45 years.

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