Japan’s Pacifist Constitution Is Under Threat


Article 9 of the Japanese constitution states the “Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes”. This was a ground-breaking constitution, unique in history, and written in response to the atrocities committed by Imperial Japan during one of humanity’s bloodiest, most brutal conflicts. Yet this constitution was not Japanese; it was imposed upon the shattered nation by the United States.

Today the JapanTimes reports just over 40% of Japanese people are supportive of revisions to the constitution. Long-standing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has seized on this sizeable desire for change to try and modify the pacifist constitution. The Guardian reported that “in 2015, he passed unpopular legislation allowing the country to exercise the right of collective self-defence […] Japan can now fight in support of the U.S. and other strategic partners, dispatching troops into conflict zones overseas if the prime minister deems this essential”. As tensions with China and North Korea grow and the U.S. becomes an increasingly unreliable ally, Japan’s desire for a robust and complete offensive army grows.

The Supreme Commander of Allied Commanders Government Section, Douglas MacArthur, wrote the original draft of the Japanese Constitution in 1946. The text “has been regarded widely in Japan as a foreign imposition…written hastily by men without adequate knowledge of Japanese civilization and with little regard either for the sensibilities of a mature citizenry or for the national right of self-determination” according to Foreign Affairs. This admirable constitution was not chosen, it was imposed. This taints a text that ought to be revered for its visionary commitment to peace. Many question the legitimacy of forcing a country into pacifism such as the current Prime Minister. The Guardian reports “Abe and his supporters see article 9 as a symbol of Japan’s subordination to the US and seek revision as a matter of both national pride and national security”. Abe believes “without a change in Article 9, there can be no independence from the (U.S.) Occupation regime” according to Yoshihide Soeya, of Keio University. Imposing article 9 on Japan has ensured its military has remained out of international conflict, and that peace has become part of Japans national identity. Although Japan did not choose this, many have adopted it, “For the Japanese people, Article 9 is a kind of Bible,” said Hajime Funada, former head of a panel on constitutional revision. This sentiment, though, is shifting. 40% of the population take issue with article 9, a significant and influential portion of society. Should Japan, if it so chooses, relinquish its pacifism? Or continue with what was imposed upon it? We must ask ourselves if this would be an acceptable way to achieve world peace?

Japan does, in fact, have a military. Its ‘self-defence’ force is just that; a modern and robust defensive army. It is well equipped to defend against aggression. However, many fear that this force is insufficient as the U.S., Japan’s closest ally, withdraws from global affairs and its power begins to shrink in the shadow of a rising China. Year upon year for the past 7 years Japan has increased its military spending. Yet Reuters reports China’s military budget is 3 times that of Japan, and that Chinese aggression is Japan’s key military concern, over even nuclear missile-armed North Korea.

Japan is hugely reliant on the U.S. for defence. This reliance is becoming a vulnerability, as Trump’s rhetoric indicates clear recalcitrance to supporting and spending on the defence of the U.S.’s allies. Politico reports “Trump worries Japan with his hardball trade tactics and friendship with Kim Jong Un”. Trump’s love of dictators like Kim Jong Un, along with his disdain for trade deficits, has meant Japan’s alliance with the U.S. has been put on shaky ground.

What was once the norm is no longer the case. It was assumed that Japan would have the full support of the U.S. against North Korea and that the trade deficit and military spending was worthwhile for them. Trump has questioned that, shaking Japanese faith in the U.S., especially as they rely on the U.S. defence, thanks to Article 9. The US has a large military presence in Japan, stemming from post World War Two, when the superpower essentially occupied the island country to rebuild it, turning it into the modern capitalist society it is today. The U.S. has approximately 54,000 military personnel currently deployed in Japan according to the New York Times. Trump’s foreign policy has meant Japan cannot rely on those 54,000 Americans to defend its interests on the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea where tensions are rising. It is beginning to make sense for Japan to expand its military, an action that would require a change to Article 9.

The most recent threat to the pacifist constitution comes from the deployment of a warship to the Middle East. The Guardian reports that typically “Japan has deployed its forces overseas mostly on peacekeeping operations under U.N. auspices – and almost never to places where its troops are in harm’s way”. This warship is pushing the bounds of the constitution, conducting an unprecedented ‘intelligence-gathering operation’ in the Gulf of Oman, after a Japanese operated oil tanker was attacked. There are serious fears of mission creep, if U.S.-Iranian tensions fail to cool off, Japan would be placed in a difficult position. It would have a warship deployed near a warzone and a war involving its most important ally. According to the Guardian, 52% of the Japanese public opposes the deployment, likely fearing the mission creep violating the clear terms of Article 9 of the Constitution.

Japan has an enviable constitution, but it is under threat. A change to its constitution may not necessarily a bad thing. Japan ought to be governed by a constitution written by its inhabitants. If a democratically elected leader can get the super-majority required to move Japan away from its pacifist ethos, can we truly criticize this? Should world peace come at the cost of a nation’s democratic freedom? In Japan peace was dictated by a benevolent occupier. Should they change now that occupier has abandoned them to regional rivals, eager to bully the pacifist nation who hamstrings its military? And should Japan relinquish its pacifist ways?

Angus Wilson