Amending Japan’s pacifist Constitution might be in the country’s national interest, but Abe will require plenty of nous if he is to extract himself and the country from the political quagmire of constitutional revision, Stephen Nagy writes.
Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution has been said to be the cornerstone of Japan’s post-World War Two pacifist identity. It has allowed Japan to place diplomacy and developmental economics at the centre 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 the security establishment in Japan view Article 9 of the Constitution as a relic of the Cold War period, no longer able to meet Japan’s defence 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, the Komeito, as well as other minority parties recognise that constitutional reform is in the national interest of Japan.
Prime Minister Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are championing the security argument as they prepare for their 2020 push to amend the Constitution. In a video message to the conservative Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) on 3 May 2017, 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 Newspaper, Abe said that, “The philosophy of pacifism will continue to be maintained.”
But the selection of the Nippon Kaigi meeting to announce Abe’s intention to revise the Constitution is where the ruling establishment’s legitimate argument about revision becomes suspect. The Nippon Kaigi and other right wing, conservative organisations view Japan’s current 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) To nurture patriotism and position the Imperial Family at the centre of Japan’s identity; 2) To create a new Constitution based on Japan’s traditional characteristics; 3) To safeguard the sovereignty and honour of Japan; 4) To include the teaching of tradition in education to inculcate pride and love of citizens for their nation; 5) To cultivate a willingness to protect the nation and to provide it with enough defensive power to secure its safety and contribute to world peace; and lastly 6) To 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 organisation in Japan, association with the Nippon Kaigi by the Prime Minister and LDP lawmakers provides opponents of constitution revision ample ammunition to cast doubt into the logic of the need for it. Instead, they have painted advocates of constitutional change as ultra-nationalists 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 ultra-nationalists 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 Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in defending Japan, and the inherent limitations of the current 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 they do 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 Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to continue to garner political capital for the proposed changes. A good place to start would be to highlight successful and non-violent 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.