Potential Japan Referendum Poses Multiple Hazards

The Indo-Pacific region is currently facing geopolitical change at a rapid rate. This is a phenomena that many actors within the region and globally have identified and are making moves to prepare for how this may affect their economic and political security. China is fast establishing itself as a global economic superpower, they are no longer shying away from projecting power in the region, making territorial claims in the South China Sea and making strides with their One Belt One Road (OBOR) investment plan. North Korea has been progressively developing its nuclear weapons programme as an assurant of the Kim regime’s power. Outside of this is the United States, who have in the near future seem committed to the region under the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” to the Indo-Pacific region. In a turnaround of this American foreign policy has shifted after Donald Trump has held office under his “America First” outlook to global affairs. Hugh White wrote for Australian Foreign Affairs in July that the Indo-Pacific is will be “a very different region in which America’s position is much weaker”. This retreat from the region has included the cessation from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and lack of cooperation with key actors in the region.

Amongst all of this uncertainty is Japan, who have operated on a norm of pacifism, limited militarization and non-agression in recent history. This element of their foreign policy is even enshrined in their constitution which was ratified in the years following the Japanese surrender to the Allied forces in 1945 after a brutal military campaign throughout east Asia and the Pacific Islands. Article 9 of the Constitution states that Japan “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” This aspect of the constitution forbids Japan from any offensive military action and to only procure arms under the intention of utilizing it for self-defence.

Because of this aspect of their politics, the Japanese rely on a security agreement with the United States, also forged after the Second World War, to guarantee their sovereignty from being infringed from external military forces. This security agreement is at the core of the bilateral relationship between Japan and the United States. The current version of said agreement in 1960 allows the United States military access to Japanese territory for bases and strategic interests in return for cooperation on key security issues in the region. It helped see off the perceived political threat of communism in east-Asia throughout the Cold War, allowing US forces to station nearby Vietnam.

Since the end of the Cold War its success has varied in a rapidly changing world, showing signs of an agreement from a different era. It limits the action that Japan can take in support for military allies, mainly playing a support role (funds, equipment, territory for stationing etc) in any coalition action rather than committing troops. Because of this some of its allies have shown disdain towards a military incapable Japan, seeing it as not fully pulling its weight. Despite its drawbacks, the agreement is a staple of peace in the region. In 1996 the Clinton administration made a joint declaration, along with Japan, of its importance in the security of both nations into the foreseeable future. Since then on top of the perceived drawbacks to the agreement, there has also been concerns surrounding US commitment to the agreement and the region in general. Since taking office, President Donald Trump has cast many alliances and political norms into doubt leaving adversaries and allies globally to consider actions they need to take with an unreliable America.

In response to this uncertainty and rapid change has led to a growing movement in Japan to question the relevance of Article 9 of the Constitution in the current form. After winning reelection in late 2017, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has indicated a referendum surrounding this aspect of the constitution is on his policy platform to be achieved before the next election. The Japan Times reported that while his coalition government has the numbers in parliament to potentially propose a referendum, Abe’s suggested movement away from Japan’s purely pacifist stance is ultimately decided by a vote by the population. Despite the planning for this move still being in its early stages, this issue will undoubtedly be divisive within Japanese political discourse; with the LDP currently debating the extent of the changes, a less moderate approach would be even more provoking. Shown in Europe and the United States in times of recent ballots, care needs to be taken as divisive politics can fracture the broader community. This division amongst a population can also promote undemocratic and illiberal political movements that can lead to further threats to peace.

Japan’s position geopolitically has shifted since the early 20th century but there are many states in the region that still remember its imperial past. Remilitarization may stoke subconscious fears amongst other actors and may perceive Japan as a potential threat to their security. Even if some bilateral relations with Japan are unharmed by a shift in position, some states may identify that with Japan feeling the need to rearm to ensure their security that there may be threats from other sources within the region.

While the United States may wish for a more independent Japan as it makes a strategic withdrawal from the Pacific; Japan needs to reject the prospect of remilitarising. Shinzo Abe needs to engage with President Trump to ensure that the US is committed to the security agreement and to the region as a whole. Further US withdrawal along with a Japan undertaking the process of remilitarizing would cause much instability within the neighbourhood. While it is difficult to foresee the extent of how the region would be affected by a successful referendum to alter Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, it would almost certainly have a destablizing influence. For the long-term prosperity and peace for Japan and for others in the region the historical norms must persist into the future.


The Organization for World Peace