Power, destruction, and Hello Kitty: Article 9, the Self-Defense Force and Japan’s election campaign

Among the more famous — and unique — provisions of the world’s constitutional jurisprudence is the Japanese constitution’s pacifist Article 9, which prohibits any act of war by the state.

The English translation of the article reads 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.  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.**

Traditionally, Article 9 has limited Japan’s military capability since World War II to a merely defensive capacity, with the country largely dependent on the United States for its external security.

But with tensions already high and rising with the People’s Republic of China over three of the tiny Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) since the Japanese government formally purchased the islands in September, and with the relatively more militant Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三), leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō), increasingly set to win Japan’s snap elections on December 16 for the lower house of Japan’s parliament, the Diet, Article 9 may be set for reinterpretation.

Abe comes naturally to his more hawkish views on Japan and its military power.  As prime minister from 2006 to 2007, he tried to push a stronger interpretation of Article 9 and pursued a more aggressive foreign policy.  Moreover, as prime minister and most recently after winning the leadership of the LDP, he visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead, including several war criminals, a move that has consistently provoked China and South Korea. Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi (岸 信介) served as Japan’s prime minister from 1957 to 1960 and counts among his major accomplishments the signing of the mutual cooperation and security treaty between Japan and the United States.

Although Japan’s election campaign has also featured nuclear energy policy, the current government’s recent increase in the country’s consumption tax and economic policy for pulling Japan out of more than two decades of economic slump, the Senkaku showdown with China has highlighted Abe’s stance to revise the government’s interpretation of Article 9, at a minimum, to allow for collective self-defense.  Such a relatively more aggressive interpretation would allow Japan to join allies, such as the United States, in military actions throughout the world or possibly even join collective security alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Japan is already a major ‘non-NATO ally’).  Although all of Japan’s postwar administrations have interpreted Article 9 to prohibit such a wide interpretation, Abe and his LDP allies would prefer the capability to deploy Japanese forces alongside, for example, U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

In a sense, it’s ridiculous to say that Japan doesn’t have a military.  Its Self-Defense Force was created as an arm of the Japanese defense department in 1954, and it’s consistently grown ever since.  Although it’s technically not an army, Japan’s active forces (around 250,000) are a bit larger than either of Germany’s or the United Kingdom’s active forces.  True, under Japan’s complicated national defense policy, the Self-Defense Force is limited to exclusively defense-oriented policy, and Japan has refrained from developing nuclear weapons and traditionally worked in random to develop security arrangements with the United States.

But Japan itself has been stretching its interpretation of Article 9 for years — from 2004 to 2006, notably, Japan sent forces to Iraq to assist the United States in its occupation of Iraq, and in the past decade, Japan has become increasingly at ease with sending Self-Defense Force troops abroad to assist in humanitarian and peacekeeping arrangements, typically under the aegis of the United Nations.

The LDP’s return to government — it essentially controlled Japan from 1955 to 2009 — could not only result in a more aggressive interpretation of Article 9 to allow collective self-defense, but the re-christening of the Self-Defense Force as the more militaristic National Defense Force, and a full-fledged revision of Article 9 to allow Japan to have a full military like any other country, especially as the memory of Japan’s imperial army during World War II fades from memory and Japan feels increasingly vulnerable from a strengthening Chinese presence in East Asia.

Any change to the constitution would require a two-thirds vote by each chamber in Japan’s Diet — currently, even if the LDP wins a landslide victory in the lower house, the House of Representatives, no single party holds an absolute majority in the upper house, the House of Councilors, so that vote could be tricky.  After approval from the Diet, any revision would additionally thereafter be subject to a national referendum.

Yukio Hatoyama (鳩山 由紀夫), who led the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, or 民主党, Minshutō) to power in Japan’s 2009 elections, and served as prime minister from 2009 to 2010, won the DPJ’s campaign on an aggressive pledge not to renew the U.S. military’s naval base lease on the island of Okinawa.  His failure to do so was one of the reasons he ultimately stepped down in 2010 as prime minister, and the DPJ, under Hatoyama or any of his successors as prime minister, has been generally reluctant to interpret Article 9 in a manner that would allow for collective self-defense anytime soon.

Indeed, opponents say that a change in Article 9 or any further militarization of Japan could be interpreted as whitewashing Japan’s imperial past and an aggressive move that would make not only China — but also South Korea, North Korea and Russia — incredibly wary and could set off an arms race in north East Asia.

And although the  Buddhist, conservative New Kōmeitō (公明党, Shin Kōmeitō) has been an LDP ally since 1999, it too has taken a more relatively pacifist stance, along with the DPJ.  So it’s not certain that the LDP could rely on New Kōmeitō in any vote on changing Article 9.

But the newly-formed Japan Restoration Party (日本維新の会, or Nippon Ishin no Kai) headed by Osaka major Tōru Hashimoto (橋下 徹) took a more nationalist stance when outgoing Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara (石原 慎太郎) merged his own Sunrise Party with the Japan Restoration Party in late November, thereby essentially adopting support for a revision of the Japanese constitution and the right to collective self-defense, in line with the nationalist Ishihara’s long-held policy stances.

With the LDP potentially on the verge of winning an absolute majority, and with the Japan Restoration party polling, in some cases, an equal amount of support as the DPJ, it seems certain that the next House of Representatives will clearly feature a majority in favor of some further development of the Japanese military — whether to allow collective self-defense, at a minimum, or to revise Article 9 altogether.

** The text of Article 9 in Japanese reads as follows:

第九条 日本国民は、正義と秩序を基調とする国際平和を誠実に希求し、国権の発動たる戦争と、武力による威嚇又は武力の行使は、国際紛争を解決する手段としては、永久にこれを放棄する。

二 前項の目的を達するため、陸海空軍その他の戦力は、これを保持しない。国の交戦権は、これを認めない。

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