Commentary / Japan

The road to revising the pacifist Constitution

Abe and the LDP must allay the public's distrust concerning military action

by Stephen R. Nagy

Article 9 of the Constitution has been said to be the cornerstone of Japan’s post World War II pacifist identity. It has allowed Japan to place diplomacy and developmental economics at the center of its foreign policy for over 70 years, eschewing the military as a tool to mitigate or solve disputes between Japan and other countries. The first and second paragraphs of Article 9 read as follows:

“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.”

While applauded abroad, many in Japan’s security establishment view Article 9 as a relic of the Cold War period, no longer able to meet Japan’s defense needs in an increasingly dangerous security environment. To those critics, the short- to mid-term threat of North Korea’s missile and nuclear development, and the mid- to long-term Sino-Japanese rivalry, demand changes to the Constitution to better enable Japan to defend itself, but also to “proactively” contribute to peace in and outside the region through “Proactive Pacifism.”

Importantly, support for constitutional reform is not restricted to the ruling party. Prominent members of the Democratic Party and Komeito, as well as other minority parties, recognize that constitutional reform is in the national interest of Japan.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the LDP are championing the security argument as they prepare for their 2020 push to amend the Constitution. In a video message to an event linked to the conservative group Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) on May 3, Abe said: “In our generation we need to establish the constitutional standing of the Self Defense Forces so that there is no room for debate on whether or not they stand outside the Constitution.” In a follow-up interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun, Abe said that “the philosophy of pacifism will continue to be maintained.”

But the selection of the Nippon Kaigi-linked gathering to announce Abe’s intention to revise the Constitution is where the ruling establishment’s legitimate argument about revision becomes suspect. Nippon Kaigi and other right-wing, conservative organizations view the Constitution as one imposed by a foreign country and culture, emasculating Japan while at the same time severing Japan from its traditions and rich past. They also articulate revisionist views about Japan’s role as an aggressor state in East Asia, fiercely rejecting the “comfort women” claims and holding the view that Japan was engaged in a war of liberation.

Nippon Kaigi’s website advocates six objectives to renew and reinvigorate Japan: 1) Nurture patriotism and position the Imperial family at the center of Japan’s identity; 2) create a new constitution based on Japan’s traditional characteristics; 3) safeguard the sovereignty and honor of Japan; 4) include the teaching of tradition in education to inculcate pride and love of citizens for their nation; 5) cultivate a willingness to protect the nation and provide it with enough defensive power to secure its safety and contribute to world peace; and 6) foster coexistence and contribute to promoting the nation’s status in the global community and to building friendship.

While not a representative, central or a powerfully influential political organization in Japan, association with the Nippon Kaigi by the prime minister and LDP lawmakers provides opponents of constitutional revision ample ammunition to cast doubt over the logic of the need for it. Instead, they have painted advocates of constitutional change as ultranationalists and right-wing revisionists, obfuscating the need for deliberation over what should and shouldn’t be revised in the Constitution. Simply put, if you advocate constitutional change or revision you are a historical revisionist and supporter of militarism.

Further eroding the opportunity for transparent, dispassionate dialogue on constitutional revision is the unfortunate reality that sees non-ideological strategic thinkers — those who understand Japan’s security challenges and how the current Constitution may place Japan’s security at risk — often sit alongside ultranationalists and right-wing revisionists in the same political space.

For both opponents and proponents of constitutional revision, it is absolutism that defines the debate between the two camps. The high level of partisanship has resulted in a poor public understanding of both the role of the SDF in defending Japan, and the inherent limitations of the Constitution in mitigating current and emerging security challenges for the country.

While the public remains split on the idea of constitutional revision, it is clear that it does not support change that would result in troops on the ground, anti-terrorist operations abroad or the participation of military operations outside Japan’s sphere of interests. Notwithstanding, there is growing clarity among Japan’s people that threats in the region require a rethink of the Constitution, and that it may not currently enable Japan to effectively deal with its security challenges.

To successfully achieve his goal of revising the Constitution, Abe will need to work with the security establishment (including the Defense and Foreign ministries) to continue to garner political capital for the proposed changes. A good place to start would be to highlight successful and nonviolent SDF-related missions that abide by Article 9 while also contributing to peace and prosperity. In this way, Abe and the LDP can allay the public’s distrust concerning military action by Japan, especially unilateral action. This would demonstrate to the public and those suspicious of Abe’s security initiatives that he plans to keep Japan’s security posture defensive, maintain Article 9 and abide by international law.

Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies at International Christian University. This article was originally published in policyforum.net .