Japan has never been closer to revising its postwar constitution than it is now. Japan’s constitution, promulgated in 1947, stands uniquely among other constitutions without a single amendment. The political party at the government’s helm, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has announced via Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that it is seeking to revise the constitution in the very near future.
While revisions are being discussed about education reform and upper house electoral distributions, the most controversial part of the plan — altering Article 9 — and its effect on the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) stands out as the raison d’être for the proposed amendments. While a constitutional revision could work wonders for the overworked and underappreciated JSDF, the revisions that will actually happen will likely be underwhelming from a military perspective.
A Dream Beginning with Yoshida
Rearmament and JSDF reform has always been linked with constitutional revision. In U.S. Army Colonel Frank Kowalski’s seminal work, An Inoffensive Rearmament, he relates the creation of the JSDF during the U.S. occupation of Japan. Kowalski recounts Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida’s famous response to the outbreak of the Korean War: When told the news that U.S. forces would be emptying the Japanese home islands for duty on the Korean peninsula, Yoshida remarked it was like a “gift from the gods.”
While this is often attributed to the domestic economic boom that followed — the U.S. sourced $2 billion in defense contracts from Japan –there is another interpretation: A significant reason for Yoshida’s optimism was the opportunity for Japanese domestic rearmament to fill the void left by the departing U.S. military. With that came a potentially accelerated return to full sovereignty, eventually earned in 1951 via the Treaty of San Francisco. The form the nascent JSDF took as they were mobilized while the Americans deployed to Korea was shaped in part by the need to skirt Japan’s constitutional limits, and the first form the JSDF took persists in many ways to this day. As such, constitutional revision is the best method to change the JSDF’s form, and therefore its function.
Since Yoshida’s premiership, in some conservative Japanese minds revision of the U.S.-imposed constitution has been tied to dishonorable defeat and an urge to reclaim Japan’s lost right to use force. Indeed, unfettering Japan’s military power has been a main objective of Japan’s conservative enterprise since Yoshida, albeit an objective that usually takes a back seat to more urgent political realities. In this regard, constitutional revision is one of the few avenues that can affect meaningful and badly needed JSDF reform quickly and effectively, but endless constitutional reinterpretations (kenpo kaishaku) continue to inch the Japanese defense enterprise forward with or without constitutional amendments.
This begs the question: What could the revisions provide the JSDF if military operational change continues via constitutional interpretation, with or without amendments?
Amend Now to Amend Later
The answers are pride and precedent. Abe and the LDP are seeking to, once and for all, legitimize the existence of the JSDF in the face of Article 9’s clear statement prohibiting the keeping of war materiel. The hope is that once this step is taken, future revisions can be more realistically accomplished. Assuming a real amendment can be accomplished, future (and more aggressive) amendments may be easier to swallow. And the LDP has published hints of what these future amendments may entail: Since 2012 a copy of an ideal LDP-drafted constitution has been on their website for all to see. In it, Article 9 has been revised to subtly give back the right of belligerency to the state. The draft goes on in Section 2 to stipulate the creation of a National Armed Forces and designates the prime minister as commander in chief. The draft pledges this armed force to help guarantee safety and order not just in Japan but in the wider international community as well. In Section 3, the document clearly authorizes the creation of an army, navy, air force, and any other service as decided via legislative process.
While this draft may raise eyebrows, the fact is it does not mesh with political reality and can’t be counted on to accurately lay out JSDF reform in the near future. Rather, as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics deadline for constitutional revision declared by Abe in May of last year approaches, Abe and his supporters have framed the proposed revisions to Article 9 as merely revising the constitution to be more in line with reality by formalizing the existence and purpose of the JSDF.
But neither the 2012 draft nor Abe’s plan address actual JSDF shortfalls and military needs. The problems of the region remain with or without successful amendment, and declaring from the mountaintops that the JSDF are legitimate does nothing to change Japan’s security situation.
There is good reason Abe and his party rarely mention their 2012 draft; any whiff of revision has so far been met with hisses from opposition politicians and pacifist groups, and trepidation from his political allies and Komeito coalition members. In April 2017, after Abe first officially stated his interest in revising the constitution soon, the Asahi Shimbun predictably launched a critical editorial stating constitutional revision should be avoided or delayed because people have enjoyed the present state of the constitution for the past 70 years. From a military perspective, this is akin to saying an army shouldn’t modernize its weapons because the only one the soldiers have ever known still shoots straight. This of course ignores the critical danger resulting from not modernizing at all.
Indeed, criticism like this makes it patently clear that Abe’s opposition at this point have not taken military readiness into account in their critiques, which is inappropriate for the current Indo-Pacific security situation. It also reveals the degree with which the LDP owns the national defense political narrative. Rather, the opposition seems more geared to simply being anti-Abe, as evinced by two main gripes: anti-Abenomics, a subject which resonates fairly well with those suffering under a stagnant economy; and anti-constitutional revision, which in Japan is an emotional debate first and foremost and a national defense debate second. This bodes poorly for the JSDF, which must do its increasingly-challenging job everyday regardless of national feeling. It seems the JSDF is being left behind with no discernible plan for meaningful reform in any current amendment proposal.
Any constitutional revision that stands to immediately benefit the JSDF must include one or both of two key areas: organization and legitimacy. Clearly, Abe’s proposed amendments would enhance legitimacy, and would benefit the JSDF enormously; their primary mission of national defense would at last be set in stone, and the JSDF would have something to point to when people focus too sharply on their natural disaster relief mission. However, losing out on an opportunity to organizationally reform the JSDF sells the JSDF short. Changes that would come with the return of an authorized offensive capability, complete with unfettered restrictions to conduct joint and international exercises, combat deployments, formalized joint activities, and contingency war planning, would go a long way toward enhanced operational success, as well as strategic regional balance in a renewed era of great power competition. Even a milder version of the 2012 draft would probably be operationally better for the JSDF than simply codifying their existence.
Abe the Reviser
In any case, the job of chasing any reforms and getting the most effective possible revision for the JSDF has fallen to one man: Shinzo Abe. He should not be underestimated in this regard. Constitutional revision has been one of the main political goals of the LDP since it was founded by Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, in 1955, a scant two years before Kishi himself assumed the premiership. Revision, therefore, is a deeply personal matter for Abe. In traditional Japanese inherited political fashion, Abe intends — and likely feels it is necessary — to accomplish what his grandfather could not. To let the chance to revise the constitution slip by is something Abe cannot live with, because of both personal belief and his inherited legacy. Assuming Abe again wins the LDP presidential election in September, we can expect an attempt at constitutional revision before his third — and final — term ends.
Some pundits claim the decision not to compete against Abe for the premiership by former Foreign Minister, and an Abe rival, Fumio Kishida, indicates political stagnation in the LDP. While this may indeed be so, Kishida’s bowing out all but guarantees Abe as the only real candidate for prime minister in Japan, and therefore cements the best chance Japan has ever had to revise the constitution. Kishida is no doubt keeping an eye on how pursuing constitutional amendment will affect Abe’s popularity, but for now, party unity seems to have won out over factional politics — at least temporarily. Regardless of Kishida’s motives, the move is good for the JSDF.
A Sacred and Inviolable Piece of Paper
Finally, it’s important to place the impending constitutional revision into context as its position as the highest authority in the land. No matter what is said about the success or failure of the postwar American Occupation’s goals of demilitarization and democratization, one thing which the imposed constitution did successfully accomplish was supplanting the emperor as the most important source of law in Japan. As such, from a cultural context we should not be surprised that the constitution has never been revised, and when it is, is only done in very modest increments. After all, it’s the successor to the holy, indivisible, sacrosanct and highest power, formerly occupied by all emperors since the Meiji period. Many Japanese could never imagine impeaching the emperor; changing the constitution is equally daunting to the majority of the postwar population, which tends to equate the two, even if only subconsciously. Change must be made slowly, deliberately, and with respect for the status of the document — much to the chagrin of defense experts and U.S. allies, who are pushing for faster reform in a rapidly changing Indo-Pacific.
Given all this, we can conclude a constitutional revision will not appreciably affect day-to-day JSDF operations. While it may seem like a missed opportunity for meaningful reform, the fact that it could occur at all is a watershed for Japanese postwar politics and leaves hope alive for future meaningful JSDF transformation via constitutional revision.
However, no matter what the constitution looks like post-revision, the JSDF will have the same problems: personnel shortages for its core missions; a continuing perception by Japanese citizenry that the JSDF is more a uniformed disaster relief force than a military; embryonic joint operations; a continued use of antiquated and “quasi-military” rank structure and terminology; a China which continues to encroach on Japanese core interests and outnumbers — but not yet outguns — a strained JSDF; and a chronic funding squeeze, which continually forces the JSDF services to fight with one another for money and relevancy.
A bold revision could help reorganize the JSDF in combination with its new legitimacy, but without the reorganization the new revisions will amount to nothing more than applause. Nevertheless, a revision should be welcomed, whatever its limited nature. As the United States learned after World War II, the first step to reform in Japan is to smash precedent that was previously thought sacred and inviolable. This time, Japan must do that alone.
Major John Wright is a U.S. Air Force officer, pilot, and a Mike and Maureen Mansfield Fellow. He is a Foreign Area Officer who specializes in Japan. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and not those of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Government, Mansfield Foundation, or any foreign government.