Winds of Change in Japan’s Constitution

Children sharing a moment of silence before a memorial in the Hiroshima Peace Park. Photo credit: Andrew Dunn, 1990, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Children share a moment of silence before a memorial in the Hiroshima Peace Park. Photo credit: Andrew Dunn, 1990, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

by Amber Murakami-Fester

“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. To accomplish this aim…land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

So reads Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which has prohibited the nation from partaking in war since its installment in 1945. Japan today only maintains a self-defense force composed of about 225,000 personnel that cannot be deployed except for small peacekeeping operations. The pacifist constitution, however, has been brought to the table for revision since Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan, and the Liberal Democratic Party pushed for its amendment beginning in 2011. The potential constitutional revision is the biggest question in Japanese politics today.

An amendment to the nation’s constitution has been discussed on and off for decades. No changes have been made to the Japanese constitution since its inception, when it was written largely under American direction after World War II ended the nation’s imperialist ambitions. The LDP has proposed a draft for a new constitution that includes several amendments, but changes to Article 9 are the most controversial. Specific changes include: the alteration of the title of Provision 2 from “Renunciation of War” to “Security,” an added clarification for the government’s responsibility to protect Japanese territory, and establishing the right to have a “National Defense Force,” which would expand the capabilities of the self-defense army to fight if an ally was attacked by a third party aggressor. The amended constitution would still prohibit Japan from attacking another country of its own accord.

Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party have pointed to potential threats from North Korea and China as reasons for the proposed amendment; North Korea has gained notoriety in recent years for developing a nuclear program, and China has dramatically increased its military spending and regional ambitions.

Stronger military capabilities would also mean lesser reliance on American military protection, which has been a sore spot for Japan-U.S. relations for several decades. Japan has relied on U.S. protection since the end of World War II—in fact, many believe that America’s military involvement in Japan has been the strongest agent for peace in the region. American bases in Japan, however, have proven to be consistent sources of tension since Americans invaded the island during World War II. This is especially the case in Okinawa, where U.S. military presence has been the strongest in the nation since Americans invaded the island during World War II. Reports of sexual assaults on women by American soldiers have been numerous and consistent, and have drawn cries of outrage from residents—around 100,000 Okinawans rallied in an anti-base demonstration in September of 2012, the largest since a protest in 1995 following the rape of a schoolgirl by three American soldiers.

Yet Article 9 of the constitution proves to be much more than a simple self-imposed ban on warfare. Article 9 is a source of pride for many Japanese, who contend that the pacifist constitution has helped to shape Japan into one of the safest countries in the world. Japan, for example, has been famous for having some of the strictest gun laws in the world and subsequently one of the lowest gun-related death rates among developed nations; Japan had 11 firearm-related homicides in 2008, while the U.S. reported over 12,000 for the same year. Although Article 9 does not address gun laws, the sentiment of the pacifist statement has had a profound effect on the national identity as a country. Many believe Japan, whose older residents suffered first hand and remember vividly the devastation of the war, cannot morally partake in warfare and are strongly against the proposed amendment.

Hayao Miyazaki, an internationally celebrated animator who created numerous award-winning films such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, has emerged as one of the biggest public opponents of the amendment. He was recently criticized by a number of extreme right-wing conservatives after the release of his newest film, The Wind Rises, for its antiwar undertones. Miyazaki, who is 73 and grew up in the last years of the war, has published an essay on his opinion against changing the constitution, claiming that the newer generation of politicians have not been exposed to the devastating effects war has on human society.

The debate over the constitutional amendment also comes at a time of high political tension in East Asia. Political embroilment over islands such as the Liancourt Rocks, and the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands have been straining relations between the governments of Japan, China, and North and South Korea. The dispute over the islands have resulted in a number of extreme political reactions in each country—a South Korean subway controversially displayed anti-Japanese children’s artwork, and the mayor of Osaka remarked last year that Korean “comfort women,” who were forced into sexual slavery during the war, were a wartime necessity. Relations between North Korea, South Korea and China are each steadily cooling as well. These intensely nationalistic acts have received extensive media coverage in both Asian and Western news, which has exacerbated the tension between the countries. A constitutional change that would expand Japan’s military capabilities is sure to be taken as an aggressive stance by foreign media.

Although Japanese public opinion remains heavily divided on the issue, polls indicate that less and less people are opposed to the idea of a constitutional amendment, and the amendment passing seems to be a question of when, not if. A constitution that has not had so much as a single amendment passed in seventy years is indeed rare, and the desire to have a stronger means of self-defense is certainly tempting in a climate of such intense political unease. The new constitution would also still be in keeping with Japan’s identity as a peaceful nation, supporters say, because the country would still technically be prohibited from declaring war on another country.

But an expansion of military capabilities opens up its own can of worms. Critics of the amendment point to the possibility of having to fight in a war an ally is involved in, depending on how the new constitution is interpreted by those in power. The American military presence in Japan is most likely not going to be affected by the change, and the amendment can only add fuel to tensions in East Asia.

In the current political climate within Japan, a constitutional amendment seems plausible, but Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party must be mindful of the ripples it will cause across the political sphere. If an amendment is to pass, it must be approached with caution and precision, outlining specifically what the “responsibility to protect territory” entails, and what the exact capabilities and limits of the new National Defense Force will be in the constitution itself, not just in a Q&A Pamphlet.

It seems natural to want stronger defenses in a time when foreign governments are doing scary things. But it is a mistake to believe that war is imminent. Joseph Nye, a political scientist at Harvard, points out that “war is never inevitable, though the belief that it is can become one of its causes.” It would behoove Japan to proceed carefully, so as not to find itself in war the Japanese people swore to give up nearly seventy years ago.

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