End of pacifism in Japan? The controversial constitutional reform by which the role of the military in that Asian country can change

It was one of the main political initiatives of Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister of Japan who was assassinated last week, and now there is a chance it could come true.

This Monday, after his party and the coalition that supports him won a resounding victory in the legislative elections in Japan, the current Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, announced that he wishes to promote a reform of the Constitution and deepen the debate on the measures necessary to “drastically strengthen” the country’s defense amid a difficult security environment.

The reform proposal, which for years had been unsuccessfully promoted by Abe, it would mean the first change to be made to the Japanese Magna Carta since its enactment in 1947 and it would affect its emblematic article 9, whose text establishes 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 resolving international disputes.”

The initiative has aroused reluctance both inside and outside the country, despite the fact that it would supposedly only seek to consecrate the constitutionality of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, the name by which the country’s military forces are known.

But if so, why does it generate controversy?

a historic change

“To understand the meaning of the Constitution in Japan, it is important to go back to the history of that country after World War II. The US occupation authorities helped draft the post-war Constitution that became law in 1947,” says John Nilsson-Wright, associate professor of Japanese politics and International Relations at the University of Cambridge, to BBC Mundo.

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The Japanese Constitution was promulgated during the US occupation of the country.

“That Constitution has not been changed or amended even once since it was first introduced and is viewed by many conservatives in Japan, rightly or wrongly, as alien and therefore not in compliance with the quality of being a sovereign document of a sovereign nation. A) Yes, the theme of the andamendment, therefore, is for many on the right in Japan an unfinished business from World War II“, he adds.

But while the right is driven to reform the Magna Carta, the left worries that the text will be altered.

“The left sees the constitution as guaranteeing Japan’s democratic political culture, and the fact that it was put forward by the winning side of the war (the United States), has long been seen by the left as a proof that Japan had abandoned the militarism of the pre-war period. That is why it has been such an explosive political issue,” says the expert.

David Boling, director of Japan and Asian Trade at the consultancy Eurasia Group, points out that the experience of World War II turned out so badly for Japan that many of its citizens concluded that war, in general, is a disaster and, therefore, the country developed a pacifist tendency.

“In Japan, there are many people who are very proud of the Constitution. It is often referred to as the Peace Constitution in a very positive way. Therefore, there is an internal group that is proud of that text, ”he points out.

From pacifism to self-defense

Among critics of the possible constitutional reform, there is concern that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to which Abe belonged and is now led by Kishida, wants to eliminate the restrictions on military force provided for in the article. 9 of the Constitution.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaking in Tokyo on August 19, 2020

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Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was a promoter of constitutional reform in Japan.

According to Sheila Smith, principal investigator for Asia Pacific studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (a think tank based in Washington), that is not what is currently being considered.

“The proposals currently presented by the Liberal Democratic Party do not foresee getting rid of article 9, but simply modifying it to add another sentence.

“Certainly there are some people within that party who want to go further and change the name of the Self-Defense Forces or things like that, but there is no proposal at the moment to get rid of article 9 and that has no support either in the PDL or among citizens. But, critics focus on article 9 because it is a central part of post-war Japanese identity“, he points.

He explains that although there is still no specific text being discussed, only ideas, so far the proposal suggests that it would simply seek to recognize the constitutional nature of the Self-Defense Forces to make it clear that they are consistent with the Magna Carta.

The Constitution of Japan, approved during the US occupation, sought to eliminate any possibility of remilitarization of the country and literally indicates that “no land, sea or air forces will be maintained in the future, nor will any other war potential.”

However, over the years, that literal prohibition was being reinterpreted and adapted to changes in the international context.

David Boling points out that the Self-Defense Forces have been changing progressively because for decades they were just one government agency, then the Ministry of Defense was created and later, during the Abe administration, a National Security Council was established within the Prime Minister’s office to coordinate security policies.

One of the big changes in this regard occurred in 2014 when the government of Abe promoted a reinterpretation of the constitutional norm related to the defense of the country.

“Abe’s cabinet approved a reinterpretation of Article 9 which said that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces – if necessary for the security and survival of Japan – could use force on behalf of other nations like the United States or Australia, for example. It was a very carefully worded reinterpretation,” explains Sheila Smith.

The following year, a new law was drafted based on that reinterpretation. Thus, the Self-Defense Forces obtained the possibility of using force in support of other countries if it was necessary for the security of Japan.

David Boling notes that these changes have improved Japan’s ability to work on military issues with other allies such as the United States, but that it remains limited.

Japan is not in the same situation as Australia or South Korea in terms of the kind of military operations it can engage in alongside the United States, so a constitutional change could make this clearer and allow – as Shinzo Abe used to say – Japan to function more like a normal country when it comes to issues defense,” he says.

A more hostile environment

Any defense changes Japan makes will be closely watched by some of its neighbors, especially China, North Korea, and South Korea.

A woman reading a newspaper in Tokyo with news about North Korea's weapons program.

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The Japanese population follows with concern the news about the war advances of North Korea.

Those countries will be very worried. It’s because of the wartime legacy. They were invaded by Imperial Japanese forces and they still have a very strong memory of that. So the constitutional review for them raises the fear that Japan is going to abandon its post-war restraint,” says Sheila Smith.

Paradoxically, it has been the actions of two of those neighbors that have served to justify Tokyo’s efforts to have a defense policy with fewer ties.

PFor Japanese public opinion, China’s growth as a military actor is a primary concern.. Chinese naval vessels have increased their intrusions into waters very close to Japanese territory, the so-called Senkaku Islands, southwest of Okinawa, which are claimed by China but held by Japan,” says John Nilsson-Wright.

He explains that many people in Japan are concerned as China becomes more assertive, as well as the nuclear threat from North Korea and its ballistic missiles. And that Japanese politicians are also concerned about the long-term reliability of the United States as a security partner.

“So I think constitutional review may be seen by some people as a way of giving Japan more flexibility to protect your own security at a time when, in the long term, there is a sense that the world is becoming more hostile to the growth of China and North Korea and the reliability of existing alliances cannot be taken for granted.

Japanese troops.

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In recent years, Japan has been adding new units to its Self-Defense Forces.

In terms of capabilities, Japan has been getting stronger and is currently one of the 10 countries in the world with the highest military spending and just last April it announced plans to double its defense budget to reach 2% of its GDP.

“The Self-Defense Forces are a de facto army that has ground, naval and air capabilities. The reason why this is constitutional is because article 9 was drafted in such a way that it allows the Japanese government to dispose of military forces for purely defensive purposes, that is, they cannot be used to wage aggressive war,” Nilsson explains. -Wright.

An uphill reform

To carry out the constitutional reform and modify article 9 of the Constitution, it is necessary to have a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress, as well as the ratification of the changes through a national referendum.

Sheila Smith warns that forging the necessary consensus will not be easy since the governing coalition will have to win the support of smaller parties in the upper house and that, in addition, everyone must agree on the changes that they want to approve, which will require time and effort.

The expert indicates that, in addition to the modifications to article 9, there are other proposed changes that are also at stake related to access to education, electoral circuits and the powers of the Executive.

Fumio Kishida.

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Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is seen as a more pragmatic politician than Abe.

Paradoxically, it is possible that some of these issues are more appealing to voters for whom, as David Boling points out, constitutional reform it is not among their most pressing concerns.

“If you look at the polls on the issues most important to the Japanese public, amending the constitution was lower than, say, inflation control, social security issues, or education policy.

“So while there tends to be a lot of interest in this topic among elected officials in Japan, it’s not a high priority for the general public, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming months,” he says.

On the way to the possible approval of the amendment to article 9 there is one less obstacle after the death of Shinzo Abe. And it is that the late former prime minister, who made this issue a flag, he was seen by many as a politician who promoted historical revisionism, which generated a certain rejection in part of the population.

“Kishida is not Abe and therefore I think the public is going to be more sympathetic to the idea of ​​a non-controversial amendment to the Constitution that does not substantially change the way the self-defense forces are used, but simply recognizes they are an important part of Japan’s defensive capabilities,” says Nilsson-Wright.

“Especially outside of Japan, but even inside the country, Abe was seen by some people as more bellicose. So Kishida is the ideal person to support this idea because he can present it in a way that is less worrisome to voters. ordinary Japanese”, he adds.

Thus, paradoxically, Abe’s proposal would have become more feasible now that he is gone.

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