Reinterpreting Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution is a challenge to Peace in North East Asia

 Professor Kevin P Clements


National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies

Otago University

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision   to “ reinterpret” Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution is challenging peaceful relationships in North East Asia and dividing Japanese public opinion. Shinzo Abe decided to “reinterpret” Article 9 because he did not have parliamentary or electorate support to gain a two thirds majority in the Diet and would probably lose a public referendum in support of Constitutional change.

For the last 65 years, Article 9 has given the Japanese Self Defence Force the right to defend mainland Japan in the event of an attack,   but has prevented it from waging wars on foreign soil or deploying its military in out of area operations. This has meant that Japan has been able to develop a robust self defence force without generating offense to or threatening others in North East Asia. Clause 2 of Article 9 also placed very specific brakes on Japan’s capacity to engage in “collective defence” of Japan or its allies. This has now been effectively removed.

The current reinterpretation extends the right to self defence to include collective defence in support of allies. Despite government protestations that this   new interpretation will not result in significant changes to Japanese military deployment the Japanese public remain unconvinced. Internationally the United States has signalled its satisfaction with the revision . The Japanese Prime Minister, has indicated that he would be willing to send Japanese assets to work alongside allies in the Middle East and elsewhere. He is eager, for example, for Japan to join international minesweeping operations in the Strait of Hormuz to secure the oil routes used by 80% of the tankers shipping oil to Japan.

This decision is unpopular in Japan. Polls show that more than 50% of the population are opposed to the decision . The Liberal Democratic Party’s parliamentary partner New Komeito (which is allied to the Pacifist Sokka Gakkai Buddhist organisation) was opposed initially to the reinterpretation but eventually capitulated under pressure from the administration . They claim that the new interpretation does not endorse the right to collective self defence whereas the wording clearly states a right to come to the aid of a friendly nation if the  attack on that country poses a danger to Japan’s survival and there is no other way of repelling the attack . Most 21st century military interventions have been justified in these terms.

From a peace perspective this reinterpretation is worrying for a number of reasons.

(i) It is constitutionally dubious given that Constitutional changes normally require a two thirds vote in the Diet and a popular referendum. This is an Executive not a Constitutional decision. The administration’s attempt to achieve   a constitutional revision through an ad hoc cabinet re-interpretation of the Constitution is seen by many Japanese as a fundamental attack upon Japanese democratic government and the sovereignty of the people .

(ii) When the decision is   added to the Prime Minister’s repeated efforts to reinterpret war history on such matters as Comfort Women, the Nanjing Massacre, Medical Experimentation and the decisions of the Japanese War Crimes Tribunal, it looks like an attempt to justify a return to “soft “ Japanese militarism in the 21st century . It is certainly reactivating Chinese and Korean fears about Japanese military and security intentions.

(iii) The only government to support the decision, thus far, has been the United States. The United States has ( for many years) been calling on Japan to assume a greater security role in the region while it attempts to prune its own military budget. From Washington’s perspective the initiative is well timed. Both Japan and the United States are set to revise their guidelines for Defence cooperation by the end of this year. This Constitutional re-interpretation will enable the United States to ask Japan to do more in terms of global military and security “burden sharing”. Despite insisting on a “Pacifist Japan” in the Macarthur settlement, the United States has, in recent years, chafed at Japanese willingness to provide monetary but no direct military support to its interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere. The United States government would like Japan to play a more active role in the containment of China and in other US sponsored military deployments in the Middle East and elsewhere.

(iv) This Constitutional move comes on top of a Japanese commitment to considerable defence expansion over the next 5 years. Between 2014 and 2019, for example, Japan plans to buy three unmanned drones from the US, as well as 28 F-35A fighters, 17 Osprey aircraft and five naval destroyers, including two with Aegis anti-ballistic missile systems. The guidelines also include the acquisition of an additional six submarines, taking Japan’s total to 22.Tokyo is setting aside US $280 billion to fund this expansion. It is also developing marine strike capacity with the development of an amphibious force like the US marines.

All of these developments   undermine rather than reinforce peace in North East Asia and may in fact stimulate a deeper arms race in the region. They are worrying and need to be challenged both inside and outside of Japan.