Japan: Constitutional Controversy

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (Photo: Patrick Kovarick/AFP).

In the 56 years since the Japanese Constitution first came into force, much has changed. The document’s American authors, writing on the heels of Japan’s defeat in World War II, used the new constitution as a vehicle for codifying the virtues of nonbelligerency and reflecting on the perils of war. In it, the Japanese people “resolved that never again shall we be visited with the horrors of war through the action of government” and vowed to trust “in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world.” In stark contrast to the country’s prewar militarism, Japan pledged to “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

But today, Japan, increasingly worried about the nuclear capabilities and intentions of nearby North Korea—and instability elsewhere—is debating the merits of revising its pacifist constitution. May 3, Constitution Memorial Day, was cause for much reflection on this subject. 

Asahi Shimbun editorialized (May 3) that Japan “has the right to be proud about the spirit of the constitution” and noted: “Ground Zero drove the United States into military operations in Afghanistan and a war against Iraq. If attacked, fight back. Strike before being struck. The concept is in sharp contrast to the fact that Hiroshima and Nagasaki became centers and symbols of pacifism.” Mainichi Shimbun disagreed (May 3), explaining: “The precondition behind the current pacifist constitution is the justice and faith of other nations that love international peace. But currently it is hard to apply this to our neighbor North Korea….Japan wants to maintain world peace, but ensuring peace sometimes requires using military power.” Sankei Shimbun opined (May 3) that the constitution’s pacifist strictures were “outrageous.”

Many reflected on the government’s habit of simply interpreting the constitution to serve its needs. Japan has long argued that employing “self-defense forces,” for example, is constitutional—and, as Yomiuri Shimbun reported (May 3), these forces were deployed as part of the war against terror in Afghanistan. Asahi Shimbun recalled (May 5) an April 23 exchange between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Social Democratic Party leader Takako Doi in the Diet, in which Doi suggested that sending bureaucrats to assist the U.S. Department of Defense agency rebuilding Iraq was prohibited by Article 9 of the constitution. “ ‘In the first place, Japan has not exercised force or participated in any act of combat,’ Koizumi responded matter-of-factly. No reference was made to a 1980 government assertion that Article 9 also prohibits taking part in occupation administrations. The prime minister’s remark…suggests that anything goes as long as no direct use of force is involved.”

Japanese citizens appear to be divided on this issue as well.  Yomiuri Shimbun reported (May 3) that 54 percent of those polled supported revising the constitution to allow Japan to employ military power. And although the paper noted that this was the sixth year in a row that a majority of people polled wanted to modify the constitution, the closeness of the vote shows just how contentious the subject remains.