The Inconvenient Constitution: Japan is Not on a Path Toward Nationalism

Japanese Ground Defense Force troops greet new commander of US Army forces in Japan in a ceremony at Yokota Air Base. July 2015. (Sgt. John L. Carkeet IV, U.S. Army Japan / Flickr Commons)

Guest Contributor: Kayla Foster

Japanese Ground Defense Force troops greet new commander of US Army forces in Japan in a ceremony at Yokota Air Base. July 2015. (Sgt. John L. Carkeet IV, U.S. Army Japan / Flickr Commons)
Japanese Ground Defense Force troops greet new commander of US Army forces in Japan in a ceremony at Yokota Air Base. July 2015. (Sgt. John L. Carkeet IV, U.S. Army Japan / Flickr Commons)

Japan has the only constitution in the world that denounces the use of or threat of force in all cases but self-defense in its own territory. The provision that outlines this, Article 9, has caused controversy since the American occupational government included it in the postwar constitution. On July 1, 2014, current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to break from the traditionally strict interpretation of this provision and declare that Article 9 did allow for collective self-defense. This marks a shift in the Japanese constitutional narrative that has spurred endless controversy amongst neighbors and global onlookers alike.

Although many have interpreted this move as militarism, this shift is a far cry from the nationalist resurgence of expansionist Japan. Abe is not a sudden war hawk rising up to match a growing China; nor is he a pawn of the United States. Rather, Abe is the heir of a post-war ruling elite who used Article 9 for their own convenience in maneuvering Japan’s stance in international politics. Article 9 is no longer convenient – and so Abe changed it.

Article 9’s Roots in the Cold War

Article 9 can only be understood in the context of the era that conceived it. The United States’ occupational government under General McCarthy wrote Article 9 to strip its former enemy of military capability in 1947 in order to prevent any future belligerence in the region. After fierce domestic debate, the Japanese government accepted. Then, in 1950, the Korean War started.

Fearing the domino effect would spread communism throughout the region and expand the Soviet sphere, the US sent Ambassador John Foster Dulles to Japan in 1950 to ask the Japanese government to amend their constitution to eliminate Article 9. Yoshida Shigeru, the prime minister at the time and a former member of the Imperial foreign ministry, refused. He knew that remilitarizing would cripple the still devastated Japanese economy. Favoring development over militarism, he used Japan’s supposed new pacifist identity to dissuade American pressures to remilitarize. Dulles went back to Washington empty handed while Japan reaped the benefits of procurement orders from the war in Korea. Using the Japanese people as a shield, Article 9 was thereafter a convenient bargaining chip to resist pressure to join the United States’ wars in the Pacific.

 A New International Context

The original rationale to maintain Article 9 was its convenience in preventing costly remilitarization and helping Japan to a path of economic development. In 2014, those conveniences no longer applied: Japan had been economically stagnant for over two decades, and the costs of militarizing would not cripple its economy. On the contrary, a strict interpretation of Article 9 under the current state of affairs in East Asia posed a threat to the US-Japanese alliance.

Under strict interpretation, if a US vessel was attacked in Japanese waters, the Japanese Self Defense Force (SDF) would have to stand by and watch their ally sink. This would create an extremely complicated situation for Japan, at best resulting in damaged US-Japan relations and at worst, the termination of the security alliance. Some segments of the US political elite already resent what they see as a one-sided alliance. An incident of this nature would be disastrous for Japan. The likelihood of an accidental clash has been rising in recent years with the numerous territorial disputes in the region and the increased presence of Chinese marine vessels in the waters around Japan. In the eyes of Abe, Article 9 is becoming less convenient and more of a risk to Japan’s national interests.

At the same time, the new interpretation is in no way a return to militarist Japan. Its roots are less “national” and more “practical”. The actual wording of the new interpretation and the laws implementing it are too limited to even pretend to be expansionist. The phrasing allows for Japan to act in collective self-defense only in places of strategic importance to Japan’s national interest. It also must be acting on behalf of a country with whom Japan as a long-standing close relationship. Currently the only country that qualifies is the United States. This strict wording is again a matter of convenience. Japan can use it to refuse to participate in wars in the Middle East or even to refuse to come to the rescue of countries in the Pacific. While there are segments of the Japanese conservatives that would prefer a more active role in global military operations, they face strong opposition by most of the population and government. Members of the opposition party in the Diet are fighting hard to enact legislation that severely limits the SDF’s ability to be deployed abroad.

Because the discussion of reinterpretation was framed around risks posed by North Korea and China, many outside of Japan see the interpretation as a sign of the rise of nationalism. Abe’s government is painted as wanting to return to the glories of a militarily strong Japan, fueling nationalism to achieve their goals. While there is a correlation between this shift in security policy and the increased tensions in the region, framing the reinterpretation of Article 9 as purely a nationalist move ignores its long history. The reinterpretation is lauded by nationalists and brought about by a conservative government. But nationalism is not a cause of the reinterpretation; it is not the primary reason Abe’s government pursued a new policy. Moreover, were it the primary reason, opposition in the government and the populace would have been much stronger and defeated it altogether.

Misunderstanding the context of Article 9 and its place in Japanese political history, many commentators have read Abe’s rhetoric and decried it as a nationalist resurgence in reaction to China. This is an ahistorical understanding that only drives the fearful reactions of Japan’s regional neighbors. Article 9’s reinterpretation must be understood in context. Abe is doing as Shigeru did: using Article 9 for Japan’s convenience in the midst of a shifting international order.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors or governors.


Screenshot from 2015-11-01 21:39:41AUTHOR BIO:

Kayla Foster is a current senior at USC pursuing a double major in International Relations and East Asian Languages and Cultures. Her focus of study is American foreign policy, politics of the Pacific Rim, and Japanese security policy. Kayla spent one year studying abroad at Sophia University in Tokyo where she took classes on Japanese society and Northeast Asian security. She has working proficiency in Japanese as well as conversational ability in Spanish and Korean. In the past she has spent six weeks in Washington, D.C. researching how policy makers address the issue of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which culminated in a team policy brief on North Korea’s nuclear IBM capabilities. She also spent a month at Ewha Womans University in Seoul studying the transitions in South Korean society.