Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently authorised a re-interpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, potentially allowing the country to come to the military aid of an ally for the first time since World War II.
The famous pacifist article was included in the Japanese Constitution in 1947, shortly after the destruction of Japan and the American occupation. The Article was drafted under significant American influence, and the official translation is as follows:
‘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.
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 the belligerency of the state will not be recognised.’
How Article 9 came to be
Racial discrimination towards the Japanese in the decades preceding WWII had severely strained Japan’s relations with Western nations. A notable example is the 1924 US Congress ‘Exclusion Act’, which stopped immigration from Asia.
An economic crisis precipitated by the Great Depression in 1929 aided the military takeover of the government in 1930, which meant killing political opponents, an intense censorship of the media and indoctrination in education. Japan prepared to establish dominance over the Asia-Pacific region with wars fought in 1937-1945, first with China and then subsequently with the American and European powers in the region. During this period, Japan almost conquered Burma, Singapore, Malaya, Dutch East Indies, and Rabaul, and had occupied the whole coast of China, along with inflicting severe losses on Allied forces. Its influence reached up to the borders of India in the west and New Guinea in the south.
It is obvious that Article 9 was a step designed to reassure the Allies, especially the US, of never repeating similar brutal invasions and occupations by the Japanese state. But, the Japanese people also welcomed the Article in subsequent years. It ensured Japan’s focus on economic growth and rehabilitation in the coming decades, and so its people adopted pacifism as part of their identity.
In this context, Abe’s move to re-interpret Article 9 was severely criticized by all. China has not forgotten the atrocities inflicted upon it in wars with Japan. The Nanking Massacre is still a wound that festers in its psyche, and it maintains that Abe’s move is to “remilitarise Japan”. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, accused Japan of “fabricating the Chinese threat to promote its domestic political agenda”. South Korea has said that it will not tolerate the move which was made without its agreement.
A sovereign state. Or is it?
And that is the greatest paradox of the situation: Japan is a sovereign state, yet the right to decide its own defence forces is under the control of other nations.
All member countries of the United Nations Charter have the inherent right to collective self-defence, according to Article 51 of the Charter. However the existence of Article 9 under the Constitution means that Japan cannot maintain any kind of armed forces, and cannot engage in force except if the nation is under direct attack. Japan presently has the Self-Defence Forces (SDF), an extension of the police forces, but they aren’t allowed to come to the aid of any ally. The SDF comprises of some 240,000 personnel in Ground, Air and Maritime Self-Defence Forces, a force which is very small compared with their regional neighbours like China and Taiwan.
How can Japan be a “normal nation”, democracy or not, if it does not have the capabilities to protect its own territorial integrity and its citizens? In this light, Article 9 seems to be simply a post-war relic.
The USA’s stance
Surprisingly, it is the US that has changed its vision of seeing an unarmed Japan under the supervision of a world government to a point where they were putting pressure on Japan to re-arm itself as early as early 1950s! Losing important allies like Chiang Kai-shek in China, who fled to Taiwan in 1949 after his defeat by communists, and the start of the Cold War with the Soviet Union precipitated this thinking. In 1950, when the US started to negotiate a peace treaty to end the American occupation in Japan, the Korean War had broken out between communist forces and a UN force dominated by US. Thus, the US came to view Japan as a very important ally to maintain stability in the Far East.
The 1952 US-Japan Security Treaty allowed the US to intervene in Japan and put down internal disturbances if needed. Japan has a severe aversion to nuclear weapons, their development and use, and it relies on the visit of the American 7th fleet to Japanese ports to deter potential nuclear attacks. When Japan re-arms itself, US gains a potential ally in a region bristling with strife and unease due to increasing Chinese influence. Though the Japanese people still live in apprehension of having a strong military that might destabilise the democracy, the US is more concerned that Japan, an economic force to reckon with, accepts the responsibility to protect itself. A changing power balance due to a rising China’s aggressive actions means that Tokyo must become an equal alliance partner, and that policies must be flexible.
The ‘new’ Article 9
The important thing to remember is that the fate of Japan’s defence forces, or the lack of them, lies in the hands of the people of Japan. Now that Abe has tried to change the interpretation of Article 9, a major section of the Japanese population criticizes the move. A major population of the country still believes in the hallowed Article 9, and is deeply critical of the way Abe has avoided a national referendum on the issue and has “strong-armed” political opponents on the matter to arrive at this conclusion.
Abe reassures neighboring countries like South Korea, still aggrieved regarding the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula in the past, as well as his own people, that the reinterpretation is limited. The government will not let itself be dragged to multilateral operations like the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
According to the new conditions, Japan can come to the aid of a friendly nation if:
- The attack on that country poses a clear danger to Japan’s survival or could fundamentally overturn Japanese citizens’ constitutional rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
- There is no other way of repelling the attack and protecting Japan and its citizens
- The use of force is limited to the minimum necessary.
However, the debate will rise now on situations that could be detrimental to the rights of the Japanese people – what would define an attack on Japan’s survival in such a case? Most Japanese people feel that Japan has made its peace with the constitution for about seven decades while the populace has prospered, so why change a good thing now? But, the world has become a different place in these seventy years, with regional conflicts on the rise, and the need for every country to protect itself as well as do its bit towards maintaining stability and peace between nations.
Pacifism and the desire for peace cannot be simply dictated by the constitution, and they are attitudes that can co-exist with the presence of the military. Perhaps now only the Japanese people can decide if the time has come for Japan to be a normal nation.
Aishwarya Mohapatra is a graduate in Manufacturing Science and Engineering from IIT Kharagpur, and is currently working as an analyst in Business Finance, Flipkart. She is working her way towards both the CFA and FRM charters, and has cleared Level I of both these exams respectively. In her free time, she tries her hand at writing poetry and short stories.