The case against Abe’s constitutional amendment

Members of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces’ honour guard prepare for a ceremony at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo, Japan, 11 December 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Toru Hanai).

By Dr Hiro Watanabe, Lecturer in Japanese Studies

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his intention to amend Article 9 (the ‘peace clause’) of Japan’s constitution on 3 May 2017 — exactly 70 years after the constitution first came into effect in 1947. Abe’s proposal involves adding a third clause to Article 9 that would legalise Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) while maintaining the original two clauses that renounce war as a sovereign right and prohibit Japan’s possession of a military force.

Abe’s desire for constitutional amendment had been made clear long before the official announcement in 2017. The Abe administration made a cabinet decision in 2014 to reinterpret Article 9 in a way that would allow Japan to engage in collective self-defence under certain conditions, such as the existence of a clear threat to Japan. The cabinet decision was followed by the enactment of a set of security bills in 2015 that effectively enabled this constitutional reinterpretation. Abe’s proposed constitutional amendment would confirm the legality of reinterpretation by writing the expanded function of the SDF into the constitution.

Japan’s current regional security environment is indeed precarious. It could even further deteriorate if China becomes more assertive in its military posture or if North Korea continues testing its nuclear missiles. From the perspective of the United States, a stronger Japanese military presence in East Asia would help to maintain US influence and a balance of power in the region.

But those who argue for Japan’s greater military involvement in regional security through an amendment to Article 9 may want to consider the following.

From a geopolitical perspective, an increase in Japan’s security engagement in East Asia, and the intensified US–Japan military pressure on North Korea that this would enable, would be unlikely to force North Korea to succumb. It is not clear how an amendment to Article 9 would create a shift in the regional military balance that would be significant or threatening enough for North Korea to refrain from continued missile testing.

Constitutional amendment could also undermine Japan’s relations with China and South Korea. Japan’s closest neighbours have not forgotten the historical legacy of Japanese imperial aggression, nor are they willing to overlook the lack of serious remorse or criticism about Japan’s imperial past among Japanese nationalists. Not surprisingly, China and South Korea view Japan’s move to increase its military capability with a considerable degree of suspicion.

From a domestic perspective, the legality of the SDF will remain questionable even after an amendment to the constitution so long as Clause 2 of Article 9 (which prohibits Japan’s possession of a military) remains intact. Japanese legal scholars and a former director general of the Cabinet Legislative Bureau have pointed out that it remains uncertain whether the SDF is distinct from a military force (and therefore constitutional) because its military capacity is beyond the minimum force necessary for self-defence.

For this reason, some members of the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) such as Shigeru Ishiba reject Abe’s third clause proposal and instead advocate for the replacement of Clause 2 with a new clause that permits Japan to possess a ‘national defence army’.

But even if Clause 1 on the renunciation of war is maintained, that does not guarantee sufficient constraints on the SDF’s activities. Clarifying and changing the constitutions’ interpretation means that the SDF’s engagement in international conflicts may become almost unlimited, as the expanded scope of its activities are confirmed and legitimised. On the flipside, if Abe’s proposal for constitutional amendment is rejected in the national referendum, this could further undermine public confidence in the legality of the SDF — which would also have implications for support of the US–Japan security treaty.

But the biggest cause for concern in the push for constitutional amendment is Abe’s political ideology. It cannot be assumed that post-war Japan is an entirely different country with a new generation of leaders when the Prime Minister is a right-wing revisionist. Other LDP politicians and many of Abe’s supporters share his revisionism. The ultra-nationalist group Nippon Kaigi — which has a parliamentary league for which Abe serves as a special advisor — even dreams of restoring the fundamentals of imperial Japan.

Abe uses the deteriorating security environment in East Asia as an excuse to accomplish his long-term goal of constitutional revision. Abe is determined to release Japan from the shackles of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, in which — for him and for other nationalists like him — Japan is not recognised as a ‘normal’ country that has a right to possess a military. Constitutional amendment is a step in that direction.

But an amendment to Article 9 as proposed by Abe would not meaningfully enhance Japan’s contribution to regional security, and it would risk undermining Japan’s already fragile relations with its closest neighbours. Abe’s intention to amend the constitution is a serious cause for concern, not only for Japanese citizens but also for the region, and it is not something that should be in the least bit embraced.

This article was originally published on East Asia Forum. Read the original article at