Whither Japan’s Peace Constitution?
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
After the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) scored a sweeping victory in the July 10 House of Councilors election. The triumph had been anticipated, but it was obvious that his tragic death helped unite the conservative voters for an overwhelming victory. The four political parties, including the LDP, that support a constitutional amendment occupy more than two-thirds in both lower and upper houses. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has declared he will uphold Abe’s wish and submit a constitutional amendment bill as soon as possible for a referendum. Will the late politician’s persistent dream come true after his death?
In March 2015, the Japanese parliament was marred with a controversy. Then Prime Minister Abe said, “I will heighten the transparency of our military” while addressing the budget committee of the upper house. Japan is forbidden to maintain a military. Despite its powerful armed capabilities, its Self-Defense Force is not a formal military due to Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, in which “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,” and “land, sea, and air forces, as well as another war potential, will never be maintained.”
Facing opposition lawmaker criticism, Abe backed down. “I will not use such an expression in the future,” he said. But Abe’s true intention — amending the Constitution to complete Japan’s breakaway from the post-war system and rebuild Japan as a country equal on the world stage — was revealed already. When he resigned from the prime minister post in 2020 for health reasons, he also said, “I feel a heartbreaking grief that I had to step down while I was pushing for the constitutional amendment.”
“After his third consecutive election as prime minister, Abe announced three goals during his final term,” according to a former Abe aide. “They were the Constitutional amendment, addressing North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens and resolving territorial dispute with Russia. The top priority was the constitutional amendment.”
Abe is not the first politician to propose a constitutional revision. It was a long-held dream of all conservatives in Japan that the Constitution should be changed in order to remove the article that prohibits the country from maintaining an armed force and maintaining a military. For them, changing Article 9 of the Constitution was a matter of removing the obstacle for Japan to become a normal country, not just changing the name of the Self-Defense Force.
Many politicians, including Ichiro Hatoyama in the 1950s and Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1980s, argued for a revision to the Constitution, but they never took any action. Ichiro Ozawa, a veteran politician, promoted the argument of transforming Japan into a normal country in his 1994 book “Blueprint for a new Japan,” generating strong reactions. But he could not push forward a constitutional amendment as a political agenda item.
But Abe was different. Since entering politics in 1993, he consistently made his argument. After becoming a senior politician, he actively promoted the issue as a political agenda item. But he didn’t hurry.
Abe’s plan in 2017 to change the constitution has some noteworthy points. Instead of removing Clauses 1 and 2 of Article 9 — the core of the Peace Constitution — he proposed a new definition of the Self-Defense Force as an “armed organization at the minimum level necessary for self-defense.”
Abe’s proposal was also a pledge of the LDP during the upper house elections. But it was far weaker than the previous amendment proposal presented by the party. A draft of the amendment announced by the LDP in 2012 demanded removal of Clause 2 of Article 9 and the insertion of a “national defense force.”
Shigeru Ishiba — who had competed against Abe for the prime minister post during the primary — also proposed to eliminate Clause 2 of Article 9. In contrast, Abe’s 2017 proposal was a compromise the Japanese people could accept by keeping the two controversial clauses and not using the term “military,” which provokes antipathy from Japanese people. Abe chose a realistic path as long as the Self-Defense Force can be effectively validated by the constitution. That shows a glimpse of Abe, a realist, who had a firm ideology yet made a sharp calculation on what to lose and what to gain at the same time.
Obstacle remains in the parliament
It is extremely difficult to amend the constitution in Japan. Submitting an amendment requires more than a two-thirds vote from each house of the Diet. That’s an incredibly high standard, but during Abe’s tenure, the LDP succeeded in controlling the two-thirds of the seats in both houses. With the latest election, the party now has far more lawmakers than the required minimum.
But having enough lawmakers to submit a Constitutional amendment does not guarantee its passage. Though four political parties support the amendment, they each have different opinions on specifics. As Komeito is basically a Buddhism-based group, it is very sensitive to supporters' opposition to revising the Constitution. The Democratic Party for the People agrees with the constitutional revision, but its position on changing Article 9 is unclear.
Even if the LDP submits a bill through coordination with other parties, it remains unclear if it will pass a national referendum. According to a poll by Asahi Shimbun, 53 percent said they support the constitutional amendment, indicating that more people are supporting the change than not. But it is not an overwhelming number yet.
And yet, it is clear that Japan is nearing the constitutional amendment. Since its establishment in 1947, the constitution has never changed — not once — over the past 75 years. Nearly 30 years have passed since the argument of transforming Japan into a normal country was presented. It was a long journey to reach the current state.
As we all know, Japan was prohibited from having a military as the Constitution was drafted under the supervision of Douglas MacArthur during the allied occupation of Japan after World War II. It was aimed at stopping the war criminal state from rearming itself. But the power elites of Japan at the time accepted the Constitution based on the doctrine that Japan would rely on America for national security while pouring all its capabilities into economic growth. It was Yoshida doctrine, named after the prime minister at the time. Therefore, amending the Peace Constitution means Tokyo has adopted a new doctrine officially.
Dilemma for Korea
The amendment of the Peace Constitution will likely bring about a Japan reinforcing its military. Whether it will be a formal military or Self-Defense Force, Japan will strengthen its armed forces rapidly.
As of now, Japan is largely restricted from possessing weapons that can be used for an attack, but that will be different after the amendment. Separately from the plan for the amendment, the LDP also pledged to increase the defense budget to 2 percent of the GDP of the country. Currently, Japan’s defense expenditure is less than 1 percent of the GDP. But the party promised to nearly double the amount to 6 trillion yen ($43.4 billion) by 2025, as pushed forward by Abe. The 2-percent figure appeared to be based on NATO-member defense expenditures.
Japan’s constitutional amendment, its transformation into a normal country and the subsequent reinforcement of military power will have a significant impact on power balance in northeast Asia. But fundamentally, the amendment is the choice of the Japanese people. The Biden administration, trying to bolster alliances and reform the roles of allies, is backing Japan’s stronger military power. That presents a dilemma for Korea.
Korea is in a position where it cannot lower its guard toward a neighbor’s rapid reinforcements of military power. Since the Yoon Suk-yeol administration agreed to strengthen security cooperation among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, Korea may face a predicament over Japan’s strengthening of defense capabilities backed by the United States. A complicated situation that cannot be resolved with a simple equation is looming.