Japan's Constitution and Defense Policy: Entering a New Era?

Article excerpt

Key Points

Changes in the security environment and the rise of a new generation have ended Japan's taboo on discussion of amending the 1947 "peace constitution." While many wish to maintain the current document, the center of gravity in the debate has shifted.

The movement to amend the constitution is connected to and stimulated by a parallel debate on defense policy. The Japanese government's third National Defense Program Outline is due in late 2004, and its recommendations will affect the ongoing constitutional debate.

Few Japanese leaders suggest that the nation should become an independent strategic actor, and the vast majority of the public supports a nonthreatening posture dedicated to cooperation. Thus, the philosophy behind Article IX--that Japan forswears the threat or use of force to settle international disputes--is not seriously at issue. Rather, the focus is on the need to legitimize the existing Self-Defense Forces fully and their right to self-defense; the issue of collective self-defense; and the future direction of defense policy.

However this debate plays out, the alliance with the United States almost certainly will retain a central place in Japan's defense policy. At the same time, the emerging policy will likely emphasize expanding Japan's capacity for a more autonomous defense as well as its wherewithal to participate fully in internationally sanctioned operations.

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Japan's postwar defense policy was set by the 1947 constitution. Early in the occupation, General Douglas MacArthur and his staff concluded that the 19th-century Meiji constitution needed to be revised or entirely replaced if Japan were to become a true democracy, with the Emperor removed from any political role. In January 1946, convinced that the elitist and authoritarian Japanese establishment was incapable of producing a democratic constitution, MacArthur ordered his staff to produce a draft. One week later, an entirely rewritten constitution emerged and was presented to the Japanese. Included in the draft was Article IX:

War as a sovereign right of the nation is abolished. The threat or use of force is forever renounced as a means of settling disputes with any other nation. No Army, Navy, Air Force, or other war potential will ever be authorized and no right of belligerency will ever be conferred upon the state. (1)

War and defeat had produced strong pacifist sentiment in Japan, and there had been previous discussion between MacArthur and senior Japanese leaders about the possibility of a "no war" clause in the constitution, along the lines of the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Nevertheless, some Japanese were shocked by the American version, which went beyond their intentions.

During the course of Diet deliberations over the draft, Hitoshi Ashida, chairman of the Lower House Committee on the Constitution, proposed the addition of two clauses. The clauses, accepted by both MacArthur and the Diet, have provided the basis for the argument that the article does not impinge upon Japan's inherent right of self-defense. Article IX as it now exists (with Ashida's changes in italics) reads:

(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 a 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.

Ashida later testified that the new phrase at the beginning of the second paragraph preserved Japan's inherent right of self-defense and "clearly recognizes that (the article) does not constitute the unconditional renunciation of military force." (2) This interpretation was far from universally accepted in Japan, and a Talmudic debate developed over the meaning of Article IX that continues to this day. …

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