The Debate

Revising the Japanese Constitution

Amending Article 9 may seem logical, but it could have implications for the way Japan sees itself.

One of the more important public debates in Japan in recent months has surrounded the Abe government’s aim to make significant changes to the Japanese Constitution. Abe plans to start with Article 96, which stipulates the process for making Constitutional changes, and loosen the amendment process to make other changes easier. One of the targets of further change is Article 9, the renunciation of war imposed upon Japan by the Constitution’s American authors during the Occupation following WWII.

Changing Article 9 is a difficult task in part because it has similarities with the Second Amendment of the American Constitution, not in content, but in the sense that it has become a deeply embedded part of Japanese perspectives of their own national identity. It is more than a legal statement; it is also a statement of Japanese values and culture as they have developed since the end of the war.

Nonetheless, Article 9 presents a problem because of the very strong language used. The article states, “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. 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.”  Part of the difficulty with Article 9 rests in the second sentence, which clearly prohibits Japan from maintaining a military. Since the Korean War, Japan has, not surprisingly with encouragement from the ever-hypocritical US government, maintained a “defense” force. This was initially formed as a National Police Reserve that was basically a light infantry, but over time evolved into a more complete air, sea, and land force designed to defend Japan from external attack. The Japanese government has interpreted its way around the fact that this doesn’t look much like this is within the spirit of Article 9 by claiming that it maintains self-defense forces, and thus not a military per se. Of course, this is simply splitting hairs—the Japanese today have a sophisticated military and are among the top ten military spenders in the world.

Abe’s goal is to rewrite Article 9 by limiting the renunciation of war and stating only that Japan refrains from the use of force to settle international disputes, rather than prohibiting the maintenance of a military force. The justification for this, according to Abe, is that Japan cannot fulfill its obligations under collective security agreements and within the UN without a normal military force. In some respects, this makes a great deal of sense. Japan has already interpreted itself so far away from the meaning of Article 9 that it is in pretty clear violation of its own constitution. It has participated in multinational (led by the US) military engagements such as the war in Afghanistan and UN Peace Keeping Operations for some time, although this only occurred after a heated public debate on whether or not the Constitution allowed for such activities. It is difficult to see how the maintenance of the SDF squares with never maintaining air, land, and sea forces. So to keep the Article 9 unchanged is essentially hypocritical and it makes sense to bring the Constitution in line with the reality of contemporary Japan and the rather liberal interpretation they have developed for Article 9.

However, one of the interesting outcomes of the postwar Constitution is that the public bought Article 9 and it has often been presented as a source of pride for Japanese—theirs is the one country to renounce war. In conversations with many Japanese over the years I have occasionally used the term “guntai” in reference to the SDF. I am always corrected that the SDF is “jietai” (or rikujô jietai for ground forces), meaning a self-defense force as opposed to the meaning of guntai, which refers to an army and implies offensive capabilities. I have been told that the U.S. has a guntai, while Japan does not. While from an American perspective, it is difficult to see the difference beyond the fact that the Japanese do not maintain offensive weapons like aircraft carriers—oh, right, they have helicopter carriers now—don't have ICBMs, and don’t participate in offensive actions alone or with their allies, from a Japanese perspective the difference is real and allows for the conceptualization of Japan as a country that does not maintain a military or at least not in a way that other countries do. In other words, Article 9 is a basis for a kind of Japanese exceptionalism built on the idea that Japan is the only country to renounce war.

Of course, the Japanese have the right to amend their Constitution in any way they desire. But in the process the Abe government should give some thought to the cultural consequences of such a change. While there is no reason to believe that Japan will somehow return to its militaristic past, as some in other parts of Asia claim, it is important to recognize that Article 9, like the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, is more than a rule—it is culturally embedded and, as such, it is an important part of Japanese constructions of national identity. The consequences of rewriting Article 9 are difficult to predict, but if Abe is able to move ahead with his plan, it will contribute to a change not only in the Japanese Constitution, but over time to a restructuring of how Japanese perceive of themselves both as a nation and as a player on the international stage.