Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Amid controversy, Japan weighs reinterpreting its pacifist Constitution

Japan’s postwar Constitution renounced war as a right. An advisory group to Prime Minister Abe will suggest amendments Tuesday to enable Japan to militarily defend its interests and those of allies

Since becoming Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe has eyed a goal he believes will seal his legacy as one of the country’s greatest reformers: dismantling the pacifist Constitution that has guided Japanese foreign policy for almost seven decades.

On Tuesday, an advisory panel to Mr. Abe is expected to propose amendments to several existing laws that would, in effect, reinterpret the meaning of the Constitution while side-stepping the daunting task of revising it directly through the required votes in both houses of Parliament and a nationwide referendum.

If adopted, the amendments would signal the start of a fundamental shift in the role of Japan’s military, which has not engaged in combat since 1945.

Faced with potential military threats from China and North Korea, and a relative decline in US power, Abe and his fellow conservatives insist the Constitution must be amended to enable Japan to defend its interests and those of its allies, and to play a bigger role in international peacekeeping operations.

Article continues after advertisement

Yet 17 months into his second term as leader, Abe has been forced to reconsider his plans to revise the Constitution outright amid strong opposition among voters and inside the governing coalition – an awkward partnership between his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and New Komeito, a Buddhist-backed party with a strong pacifist tradition.

Abe is expected to announce his plans to reinterpret the Constitution with amendments to existing laws by the end of the month, and to secure cabinet approval by the summer, depending on how quickly he can bring New Komeito on board.

Easiest way to change the Constitution?

Abe’s target is Article 9 of the 1947 Constitution – drawn up by US occupation forces after World War II – which renounces Japan’s right to wage war as a means of settling international disputes. It says that “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

Successive administrations have interpreted the clause to facilitate the build-up of a well-equipped military, yet one with a strictly defensive posture.

Abe and his supporters say that only by casting off the shackles of a constitution imposed by a victorious enemy can Japan vanquish its postwar guilt and emerge as a “normal” nation. He points out that Japan cannot come to the aid of an ally under attack under the current Constitution. 

“Abe is basically looking for the easiest way to change the Constitution,” says Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Having postponed outright constitutional reform last year, Mr. Nakano says that Abe “thinks that by reinterpreting the ban on collective self-defense and stripping all meaning from Article 9, he can later come back to voters and say Article 9 is outdated, so why not change that too? This review is just a Trojan horse.”

Public opposition

Securing New Komeito’s support in exchange for concessions on other policies down the road promises to be far more straightforward than constitutional revision. 

After floating constitutional reform early on in his administration, Abe appeared shaken by the strength of public opposition, with polls consistently showing a majority of voters in favor of keeping the supreme law in its current form. 

Article continues after advertisement

Supporters of reform point to shortfalls in the current constitutional arrangements that could eventually endanger Japanese territory: an attack, say, on US naval ships in or near Japan’s waters to which Tokyo would be unable to respond with force.

“If we stick to this position, Japan won’t be able to exercise the necessary deterrence to defend our own national security or to keep peace and stability in the region,” said Takeshi Iwaya, a senior LDP lawmaker in charge of the party’s defense policy.

US response 

Barack Obama welcomed the review of collective self-defense after his recent visit to Tokyo, since it would enable Japanese forces to play a more hands-on role in the bilateral security treaty.

And last month, Dennis Blair, the former commander-in-chief of the US Pacific Command, said Japan’s self-defense forces “need to have more flexibility to operate in accordance with their country’s interests.”

Abe’s personal connection

Whatever the outcome of the re-interpretation debate, Abe is unlikely to abandon his ultimate aim of revising the Constitution, revered by Japan’s large pacifist movement but reviled by conservatives, including Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was prime minister in the late 1950s.

Professor Jiro Yamaguchi, a political scientist at Hosei University in Tokyo, warned that public unease would not knock Abe off his stride, particularly in the absence of an effective opposition in parliament.

“There are no big elections for another couple of years and no institutional barriers to the cabinet changing its interpretation of the Constitution,” says Mr. Yamaguchi. “At the same time, the cabinet’s general approval rating is still quite high, so I think Abe believes he can pursue his [constitutional reform] agenda even though the public is against it.”

Ultimately, Abe’s biggest motivation may be personal rather than political. In pursuing constitutional reform – an ambition he mentioned when he first became a lawmaker in 1993 – he is simply taking care of his grandfather’s unfinished business.

“Revising the Constitution and enabling Japan to freely exercise its right to belligerence is one of the reasons Abe is in politics,” Nakano says. “He wants to emulate his grandfather, only he wants to be more successful.”