Constitutional revision has been a perennial topic in Japanese political discourse. In May, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan reopened its constitutional investigation committee after a four-year hiatus. According to its chair, Seiji Maehara, former minister of foreign affairs, the committee was formed to “collect the thoughts of the party [on constitutional revision] by the end of March next year,” two months before the 65th anniversary of the constitution’s enactment. Interparty groups are also promoting renewed discussion on constitutional change, and there are currently moves to reconvene a dormant Lower House committee on the topic. Past suggestions for revision have focused on rewriting the constitution’s “war-renouncing” Article 9, put in place after the Second World War to prevent Japan from reemerging as a threat to international society. With lawmakers now restless to allow Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) greater latitude in disaster relief, international peacekeeping operations, and defense cooperation with the United States, some see Article 9 as overly restrictive.
According to Thomas U. Berger, associate professor of international relations at Boston University, the numerous contradictions inherent in constitutional debates in Japan serve as a source of frustration for scholars of Japanese politics. Many have thought that the Japanese constitution has been “ripe for revision” since the early 1990s, when the Persian Gulf War forced Japan to reconsider its long-standing prohibition of the overseas deployment of the SDF. However, constitutional change has never been a foregone conclusion. While external developments, such as the rise of China and increased North Korean delinquency, have strengthened calls for change, there is less agreement on the proposed wording of any revision. Moreover, many Japanese feel that there are more pressing issues to deal with than constitutional reform. Finally, popular pacifism cultivated in postwar Japan is still an impediment to constitutional change. As polls taken during the administration of the overtly nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe demonstrated, the Japanese public at large is highly skeptical of any reformist agenda that links the ability to use military strength in overseas operations to a sense of national pride.
Thus, Article 9, like the rest of the constitution, remains as it was at the time of its enactment, and expanded roles for the SDF have instead been enabled through constitutional “reinterpretation.” According to Chris Hughes, professor of international politics and Japanese studies at the University of Warwick, the scope for such creative reinterpretation has reached its limit. Further cooperation should, Hughes noted, therefore entail revision of the constitution itself. However, it is difficult to see how revision will proceed. Japan’s traditional rulers, the Liberal Democratic Party, would prefer a form of revision that allows for a full range of cooperation with the United States and the United Nations. However, the current ruling party, the Democratic Party of Japan, is more interested in tweaking the constitution so that it acknowledges the existence of Japan’s armed forces while focusing on the centrality of UN mandates for SDF action. If these variant visions of Japan’s role in international politics result in deadlock, lawmakers would likely resort to even further creative reinterpretation when crafting a more active Japanese foreign policy.
However, while the constitution lies at the heart of many national political debates, it is still a legal document. Craig Martin, associate professor of law at Washburn University, believes that political attempts to reinterpret Article 9 do not fall within the realm of appropriate legal argument and ultimately undermine the authority of the constitution. Martin was particularly scathing of the Yanai report, initially commissioned by the Abe administration. In 2008, the report recommended that Article 9 be reinterpreted to allow collective self-defense alongside the United States, currently deemed unconstitutional. While the report’s authors carefully considered strategic shifts to justify their position, they barely mounted an argument based on legal reasoning. Martin noted that the report’s recommendations, if accepted, would severely contravene both the text of Article 9 and existing interpretations of its restrictions, so as to make a mockery of constitutional law. Also, the reluctance of the Japanese Supreme Court to weigh in on defense-related issues makes political erosion of the constitution’s legal powers all the more likely. Nevertheless, Martin believed that revision of Article 9 was desirable to allow Japan the clear legal ability to defend itself against external attack, while reinforcing the credibility of restrictions designed to prevent Japan from using aggressive force against others.
In her presentation, Sabine Frühstück, chair and professor of modern Japanese cultural studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted that there was a significant difference between the public relations efforts on the part of the Japanese and American governments to promote the U.S.-Japan alliance and the SDF on one hand, and perceptions of the constitution among individual SDF members and the public on the other. At one point Frühstück had assumed that SDF members would uniformly approve of constitutional revision, given that official messages emphasized military activism on the part of Japan. However, during her research she discovered that SDF members held a variety of views on the role of Article 9. While force members are legitimately concerned about the implications of Article 9 on their ability to defend themselves during deployments, as well as the image of the SDF compared with service personnel from other nations, many see Article 9 preserving their identity as a force for peace. Views on constitutional revision, even from within the SDF, are more nuanced than is usually assumed.
By Bryce Wakefield
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program