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Japan's new drive to rewrite constitution

Julian Ryall Tokyo
May 3, 2017

As Japan marks the 70th anniversary of the constitution going into effect, PM Abe has reiterated his desire to make changes to a document that has overseen the actions of every government since the end of World War II.

Japan Fernsehen - Nordkorea Raketentest - Bild von Kim Jong-un
Image: picture-alliance/Kyodo

As a conservative, Shinzo Abe has frequently expressed the desire to rewrite parts of the constitution that deal with the nation's security and defense postures, but he has never been in a position to follow through on those ambitions.

But the geopolitical situation today in the Asia-Pacific region in general and northeast Asia in particular is unlike it has ever been before, and Japanese people are fearful. They worry about a North Korean regime that has nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them to targets in Japan.

They are also concerned about a China that has effectively seized and militarized islands in the South China Sea that were claimed by a number of nations. Beijing has similarly laid claim to the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, off Okinawa Prefecture, which China refers to as the Diaoyutai archipelago. Chinese coastguard ships frequently intrude into Japanese territorial waters around the islands and ignore requests to leave.

USA Präsidenten Donald Trump & Shinzo Abe, Japan | Kommentar zu Nordkorea
US President Trump has reached out to allies in Asia, as tensions over North Korea continue to increaseImage: Reuters/C. Barria

Need to be updated

To the average Japanese, these are worrying times and sufficient numbers have come around to the suggestion that a constitution that is seven decades old is no longer appropriate to today's situation and that it needs to be updated.

And the section that is most in need of revision is Article 9, which stipulates that the Japanese people "forever renounce war" and that "land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained."

Successive governments have maintained that the article does not prohibit Japan from having the capability to defend itself, thereby permitting the existence of the Self-Defense Forces. It does, however, strictly limit anything that might be considered a projection of Japanese power.

A public opinion poll conducted by Kyodo News just days ahead of the anniversary showed that 49 percent of those who took part believe that Article 9 needs to be updated, surpassing the 47 who oppose any change. When Abe assumed office, in December 2012, 51 percent of the public was against changes to Article 9, with 45 percent in favor of revisions.

Emboldened by the growing support for his long-held ambition, Abe on Monday vowed to begin debate in the Diet on revising the constitution. Attending a rally organized by his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Abe said it is time "to show the people, with confidence, our vision for the future of our country and what an ideal constitution should look like."

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'Peaceful and affluent'

The prime minister said he is committed to creating a "peaceful and affluent Japan as the country faces challenges ranging from the regional security threat to a shrinking population and workforce."

Many conservatives here feel that the present constitution was imposed on a defeated Japan by the vengeful allies in the aftermath of the war and that it needs to reflect the realities of today.

"I believe that Article 9 should have been revised many years ago," Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, told DW. 

"The threats that Japan faces are obvious and growing more serious every year," he said. "We have North Korea on our doorstep with nuclear weapons and missiles, to say nothing of the biological and chemical weapons that the regime there is believed to have developed.

"That is the more immediate threat, but over the longer term the biggest danger to our sovereignty - as nations surrounding the South China Sea have learned - is the territorial ambitions of Beijing," he added.

"The current constitution says that we must basically trust our neighbors, but is it unrealistic to ask us to trust China, North Korea or Russia," he said. "We have to be able to protect ourselves."

Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University, believes that for the first time Abe has significant factors in his favor as he attempts to bring about change.

"The short-term factor that worries the Japanese is North Korea, which is clearly building a selection of missiles with the potential to carry nuclear or chemical weapon warheads to Japanese targets," he told DW.

APEC Gipfel Shinzo Abe und Xi Jinping 11.11.2014 Peking
Japanese are concerned about China's aggression in the South China SeaImage: Reuters

Longer-term challenges

"The longer term challenge comes in the shape of China, which is demonstrating is assertiveness in the region, as we have already seen in the South China Sea and are seeing in the East China Sea.

"Abe has realized the importance and rationality of normalizing Japan's military to be able to deal with situations such as these," Nagy underlined. "And while there is plenty of support for his position within the LDP, he also has the backing of factions within the opposition Democratic Party who feel that the country has to meet the changing security requirements that the nation faces."

The public opinion polls back that position up, although there is still a great deal of attachment here to a constitution that has kept Japan at arms length from any conflicts for more than seven decades. For many Japanese, the war-renouncing constitution is a matter of pride, which is why Nagy does not believe Abe will be able to drastically rewrite its terms.

"Abe has been talking for some years about the centrality of the Japan-US alliance as part of the nation's overall security policy, and what is required is more flexibility in how the Japanese military functions alongside its allies - and that requires alterations to Article 9," he said, adding that Tokyo remains committed to international law and norms and wants to be able to contribute to enforcing those laws.

"I do not believe Abe will get the support to impose radical changes to the constitution, but he will be able to carry out changes that enhance Japan's security capabilities and its alliances," Nagy added.

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