The Debate

Celebrating Japan’s Constitution, 70 Years Later

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The Debate

Celebrating Japan’s Constitution, 70 Years Later

A look back at the past — and ahead to the future — of Japan’s post-war constitution.

Celebrating Japan’s Constitution, 70 Years Later

Japan’s Privy Council meets to approve constitutional amendments on October 29, 1946.

Credit: National Archives of Japan

November 3 marks the 70th anniversary of the promulgation of Japan’s constitution, a remarkable document forged in the aftermath of World War II that has guided the country’s democratic development, allowing Japan to overcome the bitterness of the war years, regain its position in the international community, and set the country on a path to economic prosperity.

Japan’s constitution should be celebrated as such, and as a testament to the strong and enduring ties between Japan and the United States, which have served as a bulwark for peace and prosperity throughout the Asia-Pacific.

Japan’s constitution represents a unique part of the U.S.-Japan relationship. Contrary to the popular belief that young Americans in the Occupation force single-handedly drafted the document in eight days, U.S. officials had been working on concepts for Japan’s post-war polity before the country surrendered. They did so in keeping with specific calls in the Potsdam Declaration for the promotion of democracy, establishment of freedom of speech and religion, and respect for human rights. Indeed, Japan had its own direct experience with these ideas in the early part of the 20th century when political and social liberalism swept the country during a period historians have dubbed the “Taishō Democracy.

From the very start of the Occupation, Americans engaged the Japanese, often in intense debate, over the content of the new constitution, and views of leaders such as Hitoshi Ashida made their way into the draft. Once approved by the Imperial Diet, the constitution was enthusiastically embraced by the Japanese people as an antidote to the sort of militarism that had led the country to war, devastation, and defeat.

The document introduced three foundational principles to post-war Japan: popular sovereignty, respect for human rights (including equal rights for women), and the renunciation of war. Japan’s peace constitution, as it came to be known, allowed the country to focus its energies initially on its own economic revival and the construction of durable democratic institutions, and later go on to play a unique role as a world leader committed to peace. Japan built its global reputation by serving as a critical source of investment, trade, and assistance for developing countries, a strong supporter of the rule of law in the international arena, and an indispensable partner of the United States in addressing international challenges.

Article 9 of the constitution, the peace clause, attracts the most attention. It states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a 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.” As constructed, the wording allowed Japan to draw a distinction between military forces, which could threaten or use force to resolve international disputes, and self-defense forces, which could deal with aggression against Japan itself. Japan re-affirmed this distinction and its right to self-defense when it joined the United Nations in 1951. During the Cold War — with the support of the United States and most countries in the Asia-Pacific region — Japan assembled formidable self-defense forces, even as it continued to renounce war as a means of dealing with international differences.

With the end of the Cold War, a new international security environment emerged. As a result, many in Japan believe the constitution is outdated and needs amendment to address two circumstances — UN peacekeeping operations and combined operations with the United States to defend Japan. The Japan Self-Defense Forces face restrictions that prevent them, in the first case, from acting as full contributors to UN peacekeeping, and, in the second case, from taking on the range of roles expected of members of combined task forces dealing with, for example, North Korean missile launches. When Japan revised its interpretation of the constitution last year, it went about as far as possible in allowing the Self-Defense Forces flexibility in these areas.

Constitutional reinterpretation has its limits, however, and most observers agree that any effort by Japan to allow itself to engage more fully in collective self-defense — so that Japan can defend the United States in the event of attack as robustly as the U.S. will defend Japan, for example — will require an amendment to Article 9.

While Japanese conservatives have long made such revision a goal, and the Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partners might be able to assemble the requisite two-thirds majorities in both houses of the parliament to initiate such an amendment, strong opposition by the public to altering the constitution’s peace clause remains. Public views are determinative since, in addition to passage of any amendment by supermajorities of the Upper and Lower Houses of the Diet, final approval for any amendment depends on majority support in a national referendum.

In the 70 years since its promulgation, the constitution of Japan has never been revised. Indeed, no political party has even attempted to initiate an amendment in the Diet, let alone bring one to a popular vote. Yet Japanese political parties and the Japanese people seem more open than ever before to considering constitutional revision — at least on matters other than defense.

Such consideration, and the discussion and debate entailed, should be welcomed as a measure of the country’s commitment to popular sovereignty and its willingness to accommodate and embrace changes never anticipated when the Diet promulgated the constitution. Indeed, in the decades since, the democratic values instilled in the country by that foundational document — a product of Japan’s unique relationship with the United States — have taken deep root.

At a time of ferment in our own country, when the credibility of some of our most important institutions has come under question, we should celebrate the sturdiness of Japan’s democracy. And we should reaffirm the importance of our bilateral relationship, which has not only grown with each passing decade, but has also gained a level of support among the American people and elected officials across the political spectrum that will long endure.

Dennis Blair is the Chairman of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA and former Director of National Intelligence (2009-10). Adm. Blair also served as Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, the largest of the combatant commands.

Daniel Bob is a Senior Fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.