Why changing Japan’s pacifist constitution is a big deal
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Why changing Japan’s pacifist constitution is a big deal

AFTER a landslide election win on Sunday that saw his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) coalition secure a two-thirds “super majority”, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made it clear he seeks to push for his long-held goal of constitutional revision.

As his electoral victory started to become clear, Abe said he wanted to deepen the debate on the topic and seek agreement among the ruling bloc and the opposition. He also made clear that he had dropped his initial 2020 deadline for the amendments, favouring consensus over rushing.

Having secured 313 seats in the 465-member chamber, Abe has his the two-thirds majority needed to pass any proposed revisions in the lower house.

Convincing the public, however, may prove more difficult. Changing the constitution is a highly controversial issue in Japan, where many still see the pacifist aspect as an integral part to maintaining peace.

Here’s a little background on the history of the constitution and why changing it is a big deal both for the people of Japan, and the region as a whole:

A little history…

Japan’s current constitution was enacted on May 3, 1947, following defeat in World War II.

It was drawn up under the Allied forces occupation that followed the War and was intended to replace Japan’s previous militaristic and quasi-monarchy-based system with a form of liberal democracy.

The constitution, also known as the “Peace Constitution”, is best known for its inclusion of Article 9, a clause outlawing the use of war as a means of settling disputes involving the state.

“ARTICLE 9. (1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, 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.

(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

Read literally, Article 9 bans a standing military but it has been interpreted to allow de facto armed forces, maintained strictly for purposes of self-defence. However, some constitutional scholars say that having even a self-defensive organisation violates the letter of the supreme law, making the armed forces unconstitutional.

In 2014, the Japanese government approved a reinterpretation which gave more powers to the Japan Self-Defence Forces (SDF), allowing them to defend other allies in case of war being declared upon them.

Japan’s armed forces – in legal terms, considered only an extension of the national police force – are well equipped and are considered stronger than those of some of its neighbours.

What are the changes proposed?

Since being re-elected in 2012, Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-led government has incrementally shifted Japan’s defence posture to be able to deploy the country’s potentially powerful SDF more widely within the limits of the force-restricting Article 9.

As was laid out in his May announcement, Abe proposes adding a clause to Article 9 that would legitimise the SDF, making it indisputably constitutional and providing it with greater legal backing.

SEE ALSO: Japan: 4 things to expect following Shinzo Abe’s landslide victory

The LDP had previously advocated for a revision that would have replaced the SDF with “national armed forces” but, recognising it may be too radical to clear the tough legislative hurdles for initiating an amendment, have indicated that they will not push for this.

Any change requires support from two-thirds of the members of both chambers of parliament and a majority in a public referendum, with no minimum quorum.


Abe puts a rosette on the name of a candidate who is expected to win the lower house election, as his party’s lawmakers applaud at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, on Oct 22, 2017. Source: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Is reform popular?

There are mixed feelings in Japan about changes to Article 9. While many conservatives see it as an embarrassing imposition following Japan’s defeat in the World War, supporters of the clause see it as a foundation for post-war democracy.

Despite Abe’s resounding victory in the polls on Sunday, and parties in favour of proposed amendments securing nearly 80 percent of the seats, the election should not be seen as a mandate for constitutional amendment.

Public opinion is very much split on the topic. According to the Japan Times, opposition to amending Article 9 is around 50 to 60 percent depending on the polling agency, with a whopping 82 percent believing Article 9 is very or somewhat useful for maintaining peace and security.

SEE ALSO: Japan: PM Abe calls snap election amid criticism by opposition

The increasing provocations from North Korea, a slow shift towards constitutional reform to bolster the armed forces is gaining traction, particularly amongst the younger generation.

However, any weakening of Japan’s pacifist credo is likely to ruffle feathers abroad as well as at home. In both China and South Korea, many still harbour bitter memories of Japanese militarism in the first half of the 20th century with concerns that any strengthening of the military could reawaken these fears.

Why it’s a big deal?

Any change would be hugely symbolic in Japan and the first change to the constitution since its inception 70 years ago.

The process of amending the constitution will almost certainly open up a sensitive public debate about Japan’s pacifist diplomatic stance and the vague legal status of the SDF.

Opposition parties have expressed concern that inserting a paragraph into Article 9 that clearly defines the SDF would enable deployment to armed conflicts overseas.

Abe, however, rebukes this stance. Despite proposing in 2012 to remove the second paragraph, he has since said that the war-renouncing clauses would be maintained, meaning Japanese forces would not be able join wars abroad.

SEE ALSO: North Korea fires missile over Japan, tensions escalate

However, Akira Koike, head of the Japanese Communist Party’s secretariat, said that legitimising the SDF as Abe desires would end up doing the same thing.

“If the existence of the SDF is written into Article 9, it would render the second paragraph ineffective,” Koike said, fearing if the SDF missions are defined in Article 9, its interpretation would eventually be extended to allow Japan to use force overseas without restraint, he said.

A clearly defined status of the SDF will likely empower the Japanese government to have a more relevant use of the capabilities of armed forces at their disposal to meet the security challenges that surround Japan.

In a tumultuous region, the capabilities of the military are not necessarily only needed at critical crisis times, but also during peace time as we are seeing now with the greater military assertiveness of North Korea and China.

It would move to empower the state rather than greatly change the military structure.