Japan from the inside out

Commentary on Japan’s constitution

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 22, 2007

WRITING IN Contentions, the blog of the magazine Commentary, Gordon Chang concluded the following about the moves underway in Japan to amend the Constitution:

The way to end, finally, the long aftermath of World War II in Asia is for the Japanese to amend their constitution—and subsequently to adhere to it.

I agree completely with Mr. Chang, but I arrived at my conclusion coming from the opposite direction. Ordinarily, the direction wouldn’t matter if the destination were the same, but Mr. Chang’s professional specialties are China and North Korea, and in this instance I’m afraid he’s examining the issue through the wrong end of the telescope. Approaching this issue from the proper perspective is critical because doing otherwise might be a distraction from the real issues at stake.

Specifically, I’m referring to the author’s undue emphasis on this Reuters report of the Chinese news agency Xinhua’s statement regarding the passage of a bill in the Japanese Diet last week. The legislation established procedures to amend the country’s Constitution. Here’s a sample of what Xinhua had to say:

The passage of the bill aroused “high concern and misgivings among the people of Asia who suffered Japanese invasion and enslavement…people have begun to doubt whether Japan will continue its path of peaceful development.”

Reuters also highlighted a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry:

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a news conference on Tuesday that neighboring Asian countries had given their “utmost attention” to the plan to revise the constitution. “The facts demonstrate that the Japanese people were correct in choosing the path of peaceful development. We hope that Japan adheres to this direction.”

This strikes me as a rhetorical version of the missiles China fired into the Taiwan Strait before and after the Taiwanese elections of 1996. While Xinhua’s statement itself is—let’s be serious–entirely without justification, it effectively functions as the magician’s left hand diverting audience attention from his right hand, which performs the real trick unnoticed despite being in plain view.

A Procedural Matter

First, it should be understood that the bill passed by the Diet last week merely establishes procedures by which a national referendum will be held on any proposed Constitutional amendments. Changing the Japanese Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Diet and a simple majority in a national referendum.

The Constitution’s failure to contain provisions regarding the mechanism for holding the referendum, such as how the vote would be conducted, who would be eligible to vote, and other matters, was a flaw that needed correcting. The Japanese had never dealt with this issue before because they’ve never made a serious attempt to amend the Constitution in the 60 years since it was enacted. (In contrast, the American Constitution had 12 amendments after its first 60 years.) The Diet has now rectified this oversight.

It is not widely reported outside of Japan, but the proposed changes to the Constitution do not focus exclusively on Article 9, the so-called “Peace Clause”. One proposed amendment is to change Article 89 to allow the government to subsidize some religious institutions (for example, Shinto shrines). Had the proposed Constitutional amendments concerned only Article 89, Japan would still have had to enact the identical procedural mechanism—and none of it would have been the business of the Chinese.

Second, amending the Constitution requires the negotiation of some difficult hurdles. It will not be an easy matter to gain a two-thirds majority in both houses (though the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s large majority would ensure passage right now in the lower house), or a majority in a national referendum. Thus, it is by no means certain that any proposed amendments will become law.

Third, no formal bill containing specific language for the amendments has been submitted to either chamber of the Diet. No one knows yet exactly what an amendment to Article 9 will look like.

Therefore, the Chinese are complaining about something that doesn’t exist.

Fears of Japan Groundless

Since the Diet’s action last week was merely a housekeeping issue, one wonders what prompted the Chinese to “doubt whether Japan will continue its path of peaceful development.” What is it they think Japan might do if it sheds some of its constitutional restraints on the use of military force?

Do they think the country will behave like a drunk that has fallen off the wagon? That’s what Mr. Chang seems to suggest when he quotes a remark by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, the country’s former prime minister, that allowing Japanese to carry arms abroad is like “giving liqueur chocolates to a reformed alcoholic.”

That is a clever soundbite, but it is also entirely uncalled for, especially in light of Japan’s pacific postwar history. I have great respect for Mr. Lee—he is one of the few politicians I’d like to meet—but I suspect he is speaking from his emotions formed by impressions of the Imperial Japan of his childhood rather than from his formidable intellect and the reality of the democratic, market-oriented Japan of today.

These questions need to be asked: Does any serious-minded person really believe that a Japan without complete constitutional constraints on military action would try to colonize the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, and Manchuria again? Do they really believe that it would allow its army to run amok in China for another 50 years? Do they suspect Japan wants to reoccupy Malaysia and Indonesia? Do they actually think that Japan would start a second war with Russia?

The mere mention of this behavior in a contemporary context underscores its absurdity. It is tantamount to suggesting that Americans would reinstitute slavery just because it had been legal at one time in the country’s past.

It should not take more than a few minutes of careful consideration to reveal how groundless these suspicions are. The world had ample warning that Adolph Hitler would start another war before the conflict actually erupted. The world today is seeing similar signs from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, and should that country take any aggressive military action, no one should be able to say they were caught off guard.

Have we seen the same danger signs from Japan? As I wrote in my last post, Japan claims the islets of Takeshima, now illegally occupied by South Korea, and four islands near Hokkaido, seized by the Soviet Union after Japan’s surrender in World War II. Were Japan on the verge of falling off the wagon, would it not stand to reason that at some point one of the country’s political leaders would have suggested using military force to reclaim that territory? But you’ll search in vain for any such suggestion—they don’t exist.

Japan’s Stance under an Amended Constitution

How then will Japan’s military stance change should Japan amend Article 9 of its Constitution? That might not be such a difficult question to answer, because the outlines of a possible revision already are taking shape. Here is Article 9 as it currently stands:

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 means of settling international disputes.
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.

The Liberal Democratic Party’s current proposal for amending this article is to eliminate Paragraph 2 and modify Paragraph 1 to allow for the existence of Self-Defense Forces. Just last week, Prime Minister Abe convened a government panel to review the current interpretation of the ban on collective defense. The prime minister said the panel will discuss four specific scenarios:

  1. Whether a Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel can counterattack when a warship from the United States sailing alongside is attacked on the high seas.
  2. Whether Japan can intercept a ballistic missile aimed at an ally if Japanese radar detects it.
  3. Whether Japan can use arms to aid other countries’ soldiers if they come under attack while taking part in the same international peacekeeping operations.
  4. Whether Japan can dispatch the SDF to offer transportation and medical treatment in battlefield environments.

When such are the military issues of concern to the Japanese government, there is no basis whatsoever for declaring the “high concern and misgivings among the people of Asia who suffered Japanese invasion and enslavement”, or that “people…doubt whether Japan will continue its path of peaceful development.

So why should China be concerned about a procedural step in the Japanese Diet to permit that country’s citizens to vote on whether to officially allow the most basic of military activities in an alliance? Unless, of course, it is the alliance itself to which they object.

China’s Real Reasons

There is ample evidence to suggest that China’s real motivation lies elsewhere. For example, Jiang Zemin, former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President of the People’s Republic of China, gave a speech in 1998 while still in office to members of China’s diplomatic corps, in which he stated, “We should always emphasize the historical problems with Japan. We must continue to make this an issue for eternity.”

The quotation came to light when it was included in a collection of Jiang’s writings that was published in China in August 2006. This makes it apparent that the Japanese can never mollify China about its behavior during the war because it is China’s policy not to be mollified. They would prefer to retain the issue as a political weapon for use in Sino-Japanese relations.

Jiang’s speech dates from 1998, fully three years before Junichiro Koizumi became prime minister of Japan and started visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, and while Japan was paying China hefty amounts of ODA as de facto war reparations.

For the Chinese leadership, the issue of Imperial Japan’s behavior in the war is nothing more than a convenient stick to wield in their relations with contemporary Japan. It’s also a handy spoon to stir up domestic anger toward the Japanese, allowing them to divert the attention of their subjects from the problems at home.

An Obstacle to Chinese Ambitions

Another reason for Chinese concern about a Japan ready and willing to robustly defend itself is that it would hamper what certainly seems like the intent to establish regional hegemony.

By coincidence, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara addressed the Japan Society in New York last week and asserted that Japan might have to acquire nuclear arms to defend itself from China, because in his view:

  • It is unlikely the Chinese economy will continue to grow, and that when its economy collapses, China’s autocratic regime would be inclined to military adventurism.
  • If China were to launch a military attack on Japan over the Senkaku Islets in its territorial dispute, there is little hope that the US would defend Japan under the security treaty obligations. (Left unsaid: particularly under a Democratic administration)
  • In that event, Japan would have to defend itself.

Mr. Ishihara also noted that the US attitude toward North Korea was “vague”, and said many Japanese no longer trust the US. (In the Japan Times’ print edition from Jiji and Kyodo sources)

It is tempting to dismiss his comments as extremism—and I hold no brief for the man—but they do deserve some thought. I’m not speaking of Japan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, which is unlikely at present, but the rationale Mr. Ishihara presented for acquiring them.

While Japan is a stable, free market democracy, China is becoming increasingly unstable. Mr. Chang himself wrote elsewhere that in China:

Protests have not only become bigger in size; they are now more numerous. In 1994, there were 10,000 such “mass incidents”; by 2003 there were 58,000; in 2004 and 2005 there were 74,000 and 87,000 respectively. This is according to official statistics, which undoubtedly undercount. According to the legal activist Jerome Cohen, a truer figure for the last year may be 150,000

Mr. Chang also noted in his blog post that Japan has the fifth-highest military expenditures in the world, but neglected to report that the site he links to ranks China second (and Russia, another Japanese neighbor, third). Japan has not threatened anyone militarily in the region since 1945, but as we’ve seen, China rattled several sabers by firing missiles near Taiwan during their elections. China fought with India in the 1960s and invaded Vietnam in the 70s (which isn’t mentioned in Chinese school texts). China plays aerial games of chicken with American aircraft in international airspace and sends its submarines into Japanese territorial waters to test the country’s defenses.

In fact, some intelligence experts suspect that China is providing the nuclear know-how to countries in the Middle East (the documents Libya’s Col. Khaddafi turned over when he abandoned his nuclear program were written in Chinese). (This is a long document and the information is lower down the page.)

No other country in the area seems willing to stand up to China. The Russians are deserting the Far East in ever greater numbers. This article goes so far as to suggest the Chinese buy the entire Russian Far East, lock, stock, and barrel. And some speculate that Vladivostok will before long revert to Chinese sovereignty and its former name of Haishenwei. North Korea is a client state, dependent on Chinese goodwill and largesse for its survival, and South Korea has always been deferential to the Chinese. That leaves Japan.

Mr. Chang finally states:

East Asians may never feel fully comfortable with a rearmed Japan, but their unease is heightened by Tokyo’s openly violating the country’s constitution.

Since it is obvious that the stated reasons for any warnings about a Japan without constitutional restraints are a chimera, perhaps the East Asians should just choose to relax. There are two motives behind the complaints over Japanese constitutional amendments. First, as we’ve seen, these complaints are to be used as a weapon in international diplomacy. And second, as we’ve also seen, a Japan unconstrained by the fetters of a constitution written by a victorious American army would stand as a roadblock to Chinese ambitions in the region.

It is time to stop looking at political and military policy in East Asia through the rearview mirror of history. Chinese protests have nothing to do about concerns of a repetition of Japanese behavior in the first half of the last century. They have everything to do about impediments to Chinese behavior in the first half of this century.

It behooves us to start treating with benign neglect the Chinese and other East Asian complaints about potential Japanese behavior—complaints that are based entirely on promoting the self-interest of the complainers—and devote serious attention to the real threats to peace in the region.

5 Responses to “Commentary on Japan’s constitution”

  1. Peter Pan said

    China’s concerns would be at least worth listening too if China didn’t have just as bad of a war history, in more recent years. If China didn’t have the second largest military budget, and the largest standing army in the world, Japan would have no need for a military, but with China, North Korea, and Russia for neighbors, it’s amazing Japan survived this long with out a military.

    Who does China have to defend it self from? It talks about “Japan’s War of Aggression”, but it’s been in 3 wars since WW2 ended, all if which China was the aggressor. What does China need a military for? To enslave Taiwan, and perhaps spread it’s kingdom to what it once was to control all of Korea and the South China Sea?

  2. Paul said

    “allowing Japanese to carry arms abroad is like…”

    Just being permitted to carry arms in their own country would help too. Speaking of amendments, the best one Japan could pass would enumerate the right to keep and bear arms. It would be a last resort if Chinese soldiers enter Japanese territory. Japan could force them out in the same way Afghanistan forced out the Soviet Union, the way Vietnam forced out the United States, or the way Iraq will also eventually force out the U.S.

    “The Russians are deserting the Far East in ever greater numbers. This article goes so far as to suggest the Chinese buy the entire Russian Far East, lock, stock, and barrel. And some speculate that Vladivostok will before long revert to Chinese sovereignty and its former name of Haishenwei.”

    If that happens, perhaps Japan will get the Chishima Islands back, and maybe even get a good deal on Sakhalin!

  3. Paul said

    I hope they don’t amend article 89 though. Doing that would be a dangerous mix of shrine and state.

  4. Aceface said


    Give me a break,will you.

  5. […] that changing Japan’s constitution adds to fears of growing militarism in Japan. The blog, Ampoten, has written about this bias, and points part of the blame at the influence of the Chinese press. […]

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