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Shinzo Abe and the Slow Death of Article 9

Shinzo Abe would see the anti-war section of the Japanese constitution weakened or rewritten, but this would end an interesting and important experiment in international relations.

Prime Minister Abe and President Obama at the Pearl Harbor Memorial (Source: National Park Service)

In 1945, President Harry S. Truman appointed General Douglas MacArthur to make a liberal democracy out of the husk of an imperial country that had twice been devastated by nuclear weapons. Bypassing all cooperation with the Japanese, MacArthur convened a group of Americans to draw up a new constitution. He gave them a week.

He then sent the completed document to the acting Japanese government and not-so-subtly implied that the survival of Japan’s imperial institution was conditional on the passing of the new, democratic constitution. With the constitution finalized and the ultimatum issued, acting Prime Minister Shidehara endorsed it wholeheartedly. He painted the new constitution as the way forward for postwar Japan — and especially so for a unique section: Article 9.

A city block in Tokyo, 1945

It holds that Japan shall “renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has since reinterpreted Article 9 to allow for the maintenance of “Self-Defense Forces.” This is what allowed Japan to send troops to Iraq (although they were in a purely humanitarian role) and what what would allow Japan to defend itself against a theoretical foreign invasion.

Abe took office in 2012 and since then has tightened the grip of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on parliament. In 2016, the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito won 70 out of the 121 seats that were up for election in Japan’s upper house, the House of Councillors. In theory, any party endowed with such electoral success must be doing something right. But the LDP has been in power for all but four years since 1946 and currently governs without the inconvenience of any serious opposition.

Now, after the recent election, the LDP and Komeito, along with smaller ideologically related parties and independents, constitute two-thirds of both houses.This should make any fans of Article 9 nervous. Shinzo Abe has made no secret of his personal goal to repeal or rewrite the section to allow Japan to raise a conventional military — something that can only be done with a two-thirds supermajority in both houses.

Gavan McCormack, an emeritus professor of the Australian National University, notes that “[Abe’s] revisionist historical views and hardline stance on territorial disputes [has] disturbed the U.S. government and outraged Japan’s neighbors.” Nevertheless, the United States has continued to pursue increased military cooperation, legitimizing and enabling Abe’s nationalist agenda. “Abe’s proposal to ‘shrug off the husk of the husk of the postwar state’ and ‘recover Japan’s independence,’” he argues, “could only mean replacing U.S.-imposed structures with Japanese — pre-1945 fascist and emperor-worshiping — ones.”

So Prime Minister Abe does not look to Japan’s future in his reasoning for constitutional reform, but to its imperial past. Yet even before Trump, America has been looking to offload security responsibility to its allies. This is one case where Trump’s argument (that America’s allies should take more responsibility by increasing defense spending) falls on sympathetic ears.

Shinzo Abe and Donald Trump playing golf at Trump’s Mar-A-Lago resort in February 2017

(内閣官房内閣広報室, Creative Commons)

In 2014, knowing that an amendment to the constitution was still far off, Abe took advantage of his relatively powerful position to bypass the amendment process and institute a “reinterpretation” of Article 9. This new reading of constitutional law allows Japan the right to “collective self-defense” (so that it can come to the aid of an ally under attack).

For almost all of postwar history, Japan abided by something called the “Yoshida Doctrine,” which held that Japan should focus entirely on rebuilding its economy, rather than spending money on defense. Abe can now make his case for reinterpretation and amendment by arguing that the doctrine is no longer necessary. After its rapid recovery and subsequent transformation into one of the largest and most modern economies in the world, why should Japan limit its military power?

Accompanying the advent of widespread wealth, nationalist sentiment has also flared up; and the LDP has long called for more Japanese involvement in global security endeavors. The party leadership believes that if Japan’s Self-Defense Forces begin to act more like a conventional military, Japan will have a stronger case for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. On top of these reasons, Japan is receiving pressure to both from a standoffish China and a United States that would like to delegate more responsibility for security in East Asia.

There are numerous contradictions between a constitution that explicitly forbids “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential” and a government that has chosen to interpret the constitution to allow for the Self-Defense Forces. Many constitutional scholars have pointed out that the forces are legally dubious, as has Abe himself. Instead of scaling back the military, he has used its questionable legality to substantiate his argument for amendment, but he still faces many significant institutional barriers.

The Democratic Party of Japan, even if it failed to provide a viable alternative to the LDP’s policies, found itself united by opposition to amendment of the pacifist clauses in the constitution. And Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, (and without which the LDP cannot meet the supermajorities required for constitutional amendment) is a Buddhist party dedicated to pacifism. It originally objected to Abe’s 2014 reinterpretation, but conceded reluctantly rather than threaten its position in the governing coalition. Recently, though, Natsuo Yamaguchi, Komeito’s leader, has warned against further weakening of Article 9.

However, recent polls indicate that that most Japanese voters don’t understand the implications of Article 9 or of amendment. Unfortunately, it would seem that a side effect of Abe campaigning on an economic agenda (Abenomics, as it’s often called) and generally opting not to make a public case for constitutional reform is that voters are confused about that section of the constitution.

What opinion polls have been taken indicate a deep support for Article 9 among the Japanese population as they believe that it has kept their country out of war. The popularity of the current constitution, as well as the support it enjoys outside of the LDP (both from the Democratic Party and Komeito) indicate that it will not be rewritten in the near future. And if this wasn’t troubling enough for those calling for amendment, the constitution has not been amended since it was first put to the Japanese government in 1946.

With that said, even if Article 9 is not in mortal danger, it is already the victim of a much slower death. One might reasonably question what the point of a pacifist constitution is if Japan can not only still go to war but also be dragged into war to defend an ally (as it can under Abe’s interpretation). The Economist points out that “for a document cobbled together during a few hectic days in 1946, in bombed-out Tokyo, Japan’s constitution has weathered the test of time.” Indeed it has — at least technically — but true supporters of Article 9 should already be mourning the death of that unique experiment in international relations.

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