Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Japan's constitutional choice

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A protester raises a placard as they gather at a rally against Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's push to expand Japan's military role. (Photo: Reuters)

In Brief

After Japan's surrender at the end of World War II in 1945, the US-led occupation authority drafted the country a new constitution designed to disarm and democratise the former enemy. Japan's constitution underpins its liberal democratic institutions and guarantees Western-style individual human rights.


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It also includes the famous Article 9 ‘peace clause’ under which the Japanese people forever renounce ‘the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes’ and the maintenance of ‘land, sea, and air forces’ for that purpose.

How much the new constitution was one imposed by the United States and its allies and how much it was shaped by Japanese thinking and input is a matter of serious scholarly debate, but the right-wing in Japan have always viewed it as a constitution that was imposed on Japan by the victors.

Article 9 has been reinterpreted over the years, enabling the establishment of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) but limiting the use of force to the minimum necessary level for national self-defence. More recently, a July 2014 cabinet decision and the introduction of security-related bills in September 2015 reinterpreted Article 9 to recognise the right of the SDF to exercise limited forms of collective self-defence. Yet never in the 69 years since it was enacted has a single word of Japan’s post-war constitution been formally amended.

Article 9 cuts to the heart of Japan’s post-war national identity.

On the one hand, it is the bedrock of Japan’s identity as a peace-loving nation. The military takeover of Japanese society in the 1930s inflicted great suffering on the nations Japan invaded as well as on ordinary Japanese themselves. The decision to enter and continue at all costs an unwinnable war with the United States led to defeat, occupation, and a loss of sovereignty from 1945 to 1952. The constitution and Article 9 were embraced by a majority of Japanese after the war as a source of great pride. With this document Japan could once again be accepted by the international community, maintain civilian democratic controls, ensure that history would never be repeated and move the nation toward peace and prosperity. Japanese soldiers have not fired a single bullet at another nation’s troops in the post-war era. And Japan was rebuilt from the ravages of war in record time overtaking West Germany as the second largest economy in the world in 1967, where it remained until it was overtaken by China in 2010.

On the other hand, ever since its establishment in 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has contained factions — now dominant under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — that have been determined to fundamentally revise the constitution. They emphasise that the constitution was humiliatingly imposed by a foreign military power, that it curtails Japan’s foreign and security policy autonomy, and that it contains alien provisions based on the Western theory of natural rights rather than an indigenous Japanese spirit. These factions also point to criticism of Japan for freeriding on the US security guarantee and engaging in ‘chequebook diplomacy’. Anxieties over Japan’s two lost decades of stagnant economic growth and the sheer size of China’s economic and military rise next door help garner support for this worldview. It is the same worldview that ignores or denies outright criticism of historical revisionism and aggravates relations with regional neighbours.

These conflicting conceptions of Japan’s national identity will shape the constitutional revision debate which is now emerging in the wake of the upper house election earlier this month.

The United States has long encouraged Japan to make greater contributions to the alliance and regional security. But there is concern that the security reforms that are justified by some in the name of strengthening the US–Japan alliance are also being advocated by those who espouse anti-US ‘escape the post-war regime’ rhetoric and uprooting Japan’s post-war liberal democratic institutions.

A key obstacle for the LDP in implementing any constitutional revision will be strong public opinion that is opposed to it, as evinced by the tens of thousands who protested over the security-related bills last year. The LDP’s current proposal, released in 2012, ‘contains so many problematic changes — including enhancing the status of the Emperor, reducing the importance of the individual versus the state, increasing the power of the executive branch of government and ending the strict separation of church and state — that it is highly unlikely the public would swallow it whole’, explains Walter Hamilton. ‘A smarter approach, and one already gaining some momentum, would narrow the focus and include less controversial proposals’.

Another key obstacle to constitutional revision will be the need to come to an agreement with the LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito, a political offshoot of the Nichiren Buddhist movement Soka Gakkai, whose history imbues it with pacifist values.

As Ben Ascione notes in our lead article this week, Soka Gakkai members ‘have (in the past) been willing to extend support to Komeito and qualify their absolute pacifist stance’ when the party agreed to the 1992 Peacekeeping Operation Law and to dispatch the SDF to Iraq in 2003 to carry out humanitarian operations. Komeito also ‘supported the Abe cabinet’s reinterpretation of Article 9 to permit limited forms of collective self-defence’. But this support has been justified within the framework of Article 9 as well as the context of compromises necessary ‘to exercise power and to continue to act as a brake on the LDP’s policy excesses’.

LDP leeway to pressure Komeito on a constitutional revision deal is limited by the two parties’ ‘electoral cooperation arrangement which sees Komeito voters supply between 5 and 20 per cent of the votes LDP candidates receive in single-seat districts in both houses in exchange for influence as a ruling party’. As Ascione explains, ‘many LDP politicians’ seats would be under serious threat if this deal came unstuck’.

There may be room for an amendment to Article 9 that explicitly affirms the constitutionality of the SDF and expands its international peacekeeping and disaster relief roles. But, as Ascione argues, ‘a revision that seriously alters the spirit of Article 9 or outright rescinds it would surely be a no-go for Komeito that would seriously undermine its loyal support base’.

Japan’s current LDP leadership may feel, as Hamilton suggests, that it is ‘one step closer to its glittering prize’ of constitutional revision. As the LDP pursues that goal during Abe’s remaining two years in office, however, the path forward will likely be slow, hard fought and contentious. Ultimately, the devil will be in the details. But it is evident that much work will have to be done to overhaul the 2012 constitutional revision proposal into something the public can get behind if the prize is to be won.

The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Ryan Manuel, Amy King and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

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