Japan’s Constitutional Albatross

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

downloadThe approach of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II has sparked much discussion – and lamentation – of East Asia’s resurgent historical feuds. But recent tensions in the region may partly reflect a lack of progress in another, overlooked area: Japanese constitutional reform. Indeed, despite the powerlessness so vividly highlighted by the Islamic State’s beheading of two Japanese hostages, Japan has not adopted even one amendment to the “peace constitution” that the occupying American forces imposed on it in 1947.

At first glance, this may not be altogether surprising. After all, the constitution served an important purpose: by guaranteeing that Japan would not pose a military threat in the future, it enabled the country finally to escape foreign occupation and pursue rebuilding and democratization. But consider this: Germany adopted an Allied-approved constitution under similar circumstances in 1949, to which it has since made dozens of amendments.

Moreover, whereas Germany’s constitution, or Basic Law, authorized the use of military force in self-defense or as part of a collective security agreement, Japan’s constitution stipulated full and permanent relinquishment of “the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” Japan is the only country in the world bound by such restrictions – imposed not just to prevent a militarist revival, but also to punish Japan for its wartime government’s policies – and continued adherence to them is unrealistic.

That is why Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made constitutional reform a high priority. Having cemented his authority in December’s snap general election, in which his Liberal Democratic Party won a decisive victory, Abe is determined to pursue his goal of building a stronger, more competitive Japan – one that can hold its own against an increasingly muscular China.

Abe’s effort to “normalize” Japan’s strategic posture began with a reinterpretation of Article 9 of the constitution, according to which the country would henceforth be allowed to engage in “collective self-defense.” Japan’s government approved the change last summer, and the United States backed the move as well. With the Islamic State’s attempts to leverage the lives of two Japanese hostages, legislation to implement the reinterpretation is set to be submitted to the Diet.

Yet the reinterpretation has faced some resistance at home and abroad. Chinese critics, in particular, have expressed concern that Japanese militarism could reemerge, though they neglect to mention that it is China’s military buildup that prompted Japan’s government to reassess its national defense policy.

In fact, the reinterpretation amounts to little more than a tweak: Japanese forces can now shield an American warship defending Japan, but they remain prohibited from initiating offensive attacks or participating in multilateral military operations. Given that the United Nations charter recognizes individual and collective self-defense as an “inherent right” of sovereign countries, the change should be uncontroversial.

But significant obstacles continue to block wider constitutional reform. Amendments require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Diet, and a majority in a popular referendum, making Japan’s constitution one of the world’s most difficult to revise. To facilitate his ambitions, Abe hopes to scale down the requirement to simple majorities in both chambers or eliminate the need for a public referendum.

Given popular resistance to change, Abe’s task will not be easy. Whereas citizens of most democracies regard their constitutions as works in progress – India, for example, has amended its constitution 99 times since 1950 – the Japanese largely treat their constitution as sacrosanct. As a result, rather than ensuring that their constitution reflects social, technological, economic, and even ideological developments, they zealously uphold its precise provisions, like religious fundamentalists defending the literal truth of scripture.

Moreover, pacifism is deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche, even among young people, largely owing to the painful legacy of Japan’s prewar militarism. Indeed, a poll conducted by the World Values Survey last year revealed that only 15.3% of Japanese – compared with 74.2% of Chinese and 57.7% of Americans – would be prepared to defend their country, the lowest rate in the world. Just 9.5% of Japanese under the age of 30 said that they would be willing to fight.

Given such opposition, an actual revision of Article 9, rather than just a reinterpretation, does not seem feasible, especially while the avowedly pacifist Komeito party remains part of the ruling coalition. Even if Abe manages to relax the amendment requirements – no easy feat, given the likelihood that a popular referendum would reveal weak public support – he will probably have to leave the change to his successor.

But one factor could bolster Abe’s cause considerably. Explicit US support for Japanese constitutional reform might not only blunt Chinese criticism, but could also reassure many Japanese that updating Article 9 would not amount to rejecting the postwar order that the Americans helped to establish in Japan.

Such a move would also serve US security interests. A more confident and secure Japan would be better able to block China from gaining ascendancy in the western Pacific, thereby advancing the central US policy objective of ensuring a stable balance of power in Asia. No other country in the region could act as a credible counterweight to China.

Today’s Japan – a liberal democracy that has not fired a single shot against an outside party in nearly seven decades, and that has made major contributions to global development during this period – is very different from the Japan of 1947. Its constitution should reflect that.

© Project Syndicate, 2015.

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