Japan’s Most Important Paper: Too Dangerous to Revise

By: Nathaniel Sawyer


Riding his public popularity and his party’s majority in both the Lower House and the Upper House of the Japanese Diet, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan has a unique window of opportunity to attempt the passage of a key agenda item that has been on the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan’s political docket for decades: revision of Japan’s Constitution. The LDP has long argued that the Japanese Constitution, a document seeping with the influence of foreigners, is long overdue for change. But the LDP’s proposals released last year known as “nihon koku kenpō kaisei sōan” not only revise portions of the US-influenced rhetoric but also fundamentally rearrange the Constitution’s very basis for Japanese political stability and regional security.[1]


The start of these risky presses on the Constitution begins with the conservative attacks on Article 96, which articulates the formal processes for future constitutional amendments. Currently, Article 96 requires a rigorous process for approving amendments which involves a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet in addition to a majority by popular referendum. The proposed revision would skirt that high political threshold for amendment by lowering the bar to only a simple majority in the Diet and a popular majority.[2]


While LDP politicians claim to be making it easier for the people of Japan to take control of their own Constitution by making the referendum process more likely, the regional security situation makes direct democratic representation a potential mistake. Given the backdrop of heated territorial disputes between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands, placing the levers for constitutional revision in the hands of an increasingly resentful domestic population fueled by a ballooning fear and hatred towards the bellicosity of China’s Communist Party will only be the first step toward escalating a broader conflagration with China over the hotly contested waters.[3]


This is not to say that the Japanese people can’t or shouldn’t be trusted, but rather that the influence of persuasion, the empirical record of recent public voting patterns towards more hardline politicians, and the vulnerability of all human beings to submit to the powerful fear-based emotions of nationalism and insecurity all converge to create a scenario where constitutional revision in this specific regional climate s is particularly dangerous. This hawkish mindset within the population doesn’t go unnoticed by the LDP. Rather, the push for revision of Article 96 and lowering the bar for public deliberation over other constitutional amendments via referendum is a deliberate attempt to ride this wave of paranoia and channel the misunderstandings and public xenophobia into further revisions of the Constitution which makes the Article 96 debate intrinsically tied to the LDP’s motion to table other parts of the Constitution as well, specifically, Article 9.


Because Abe’s legislative agenda has much remained the same since his first attempt when he was Prime Minister back in 2007, Article 9, the constitutional article that renounces Japan’s sovereign right to use warfare, would be first on the chopping block. Abe and the LDP tout revision of Article 9 as critical to Japan’s right to self-defense in the face of security threats and propose revisions that would expand the scope, size, and legal basis for remilitarization of a newly named “National Defence Forces.”[4] This means Japanese Self Defense Forces would no longer be restrained from engaging in offensive operations overseas or contingencies with no direct connections to Japan, a legal turnaround that would be sure to increase tensions with countries like North Korea and China.[5]


While opponents raise valid points defending revision of Article 9 with arguments ranging from pointing out that Japan already has extensive military forces to pointing out the potential for an expanded SDF to hold deterrent value in the face of China and North Korea, successful revision of Article 9 would dismantle one of the most important concrete global models for pacifism and restraint the world has ever known.[6] Furthermore, while some might proclaim the deterrent value of revision of Article 9, successful rescinding of its language would constitute a functional “overnight arms build-up of massive portions” as every pre-existing legal constraint on Japanese foreign intervention and aggression would no longer exist.[7]


And while Japanese analysts and politicians might swear to neighbors that revision is only for self-defense, how would the People’s Liberation Army in China, already on red alert given the recent territorial spats, perceive Japan’s move? The consensus of China’s academic literature base, which self-evidently provides a much more accurate understanding of how the Chinese will respond, suggests that an LDP move to revise Article 9 would be seen as a direct threat to the core interests of China. The legal vacuum of non-existent constitutional restraint leaves just too much uncertainty in the view of the Chinese to justify risking tacit trust of a historical enemy all the while knowing that Japan could at any moment cave to rising right-wing nationalistic tendencies.[8]


According to Chinese scholars and analysts, China not only fears direct confrontation with an unrestrained Japan over the Senkaku islands but also Japan’s newfound legal ability to intervene on behalf of their ally, the US, and Taiwan in the event of a cross-strait crisis between China and Taiwan. A Tokyo legally free to engage in collective self-defense is an even base of support for US regional containment efforts and also drastically increases the stakes for China.[9] If Article 96 is revised and a political showdown over Article 9 looks like it will yield an LDP victory in favor of gutting status quo legal restraints, Chinese political and military officials could logically reason that a preemptive move on the Senkaku islands is the best way to go. Repeal of Article 9 doesn’t uphold deterrence; it upsets the balance of deterrence by injecting asymmetric uncertainty into an already unstable security equation.


If Abe and his fellow LDP members were wiser, they would table their proposals for constitutional revision and instead reinvest their efforts towards negotiating a conflict settlement agreement with China. Playing with fire in an attempt to burn away portions of the Constitution will only provide the sparks that risk igniting the explosive tinderbox of tensions between two of the most heavily armed countries in the world.


Nathaniel Sawyer is a freshman at Emory University planning to study music composition and contemplative studies. Recipient of the 2013 Alben W. Barkley Merit Scholarship for academic and policy debate achievement, he is also a research intern at the National Forensic League and assistant coach of debate and research at Glenbrook North High School.


[1] Lawrence Repeta, “Japan’s Democracy at Risk – The LDP’s Ten Most Dangerous Proposals for Constitutional Change,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, July 15, 2013, accessed October 1, 2013, http://www.japanfocus.org/-Lawrence-Repeta/3969


[2] Joel Rheuben, “Constitutional Amendment in Japan – Potential Lessons from Australia,” East Asia Forum, May 8, 2013, accessed October 1, 2013, http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2013/05/08/constitutional-amendment-in-japan-potential-lessons-from-australia/


[3] John Blaxland and Rikki Kersten, “Escalating Territorial Tension in East Asia Echoes Europe’s Descent into World War,” East Asia Forum, February 13, 2013, accessed October 1, 2013, http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2013/02/13/escalating-territorial-tension-in-east-asia-echoes-europes-descent-into-world-war/


[4]The Japan Times, “LDP Now Open to Modifying Constitutional Revision Plans,” July 7, 2013, accessed October 1, 2013, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/07/07/national/ldp-now-open-to-modifying-constitutional-revision-plans/#.Ulh7plCkr1x


[5] The Japan Times, “Inching Toward Collective Self-Defense,” October 7, 2013, accessed October 8, 2013, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2013/10/07/editorials/inching-toward-collective-self-defense/#.Ulh2dFCkr1x


[6] Akira Kawasaki, “Article 9’s Global Impact,” Foreign Policy In Focus, Policy Report, July 26, 2007, accessed October 1, 2013, http://www.bodine.phila.k12.pa.us/kaufman/japanclass/peaceconst/4426.htm


[7] Michael Seigel, “Some Considerations Regarding Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution,” Nanzan University Institute for Social Ethics, based on discussion at the Joint Australia-Japan Workshop in September 2005, accessed October 8, 2013, http://www.ic.nanzan-u.ac.jp/ISE/ajworkshop/article9-seigel-e.pdf


[8] Yongwook Ryu, “China’s Japan Watchers on the Constitutional Revision Issue,” Constitutional Revision in Japan Research Project, Harvard University, March 2009, accessed October 1, 2013, http://rijs.fas.harvard.edu/crrp/papers/pdf/ChinaCR_Ryu.pdf


[9] Yongwook Ryu, “China’s Japan Watchers on the Constitutional Revision Issue,” Constitutional Revision in Japan Research Project, Harvard University, March 2009, accessed October 1, 2013, http://rijs.fas.harvard.edu/crrp/papers/pdf/ChinaCR_Ryu.pdf



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