Nation & World

Revising Japan’s constitution: History, headlines, and prospects

6 min read

For months now, the pirates operating off the coast of Somalia have been making trouble for the world’s maritime shipping network. Now it appears their grappling hooks may have gotten entangled in another, very different web: the complicated question of revision of the Japanese constitution, specifically of Article 9, which contains the “renunciation of war” clause.

That was one of the implicit messages of “Revising Japan’s Constitution: History, Headlines, and Prospects,” a symposium offered Nov. 21 by the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard.

One of the presenters, Alexis Dudden, associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut, recounted how the recent capture by pirates of the Japanese-owned tanker Chemstar Venus with five South Koreans among its crew has prompted calls not only for the South Korean Navy to send ships to the region to protect Koreans but for Japan to change its laws to enable it to help defend its own citizens’ property.

For Japan’s neighbors — Korea, Taiwan, and China — the question of constitutional revision is “all Article 9 all the time.” It’s not that these countries are pacifists — far from it. “It’s not at all about contemporary law but it’s entirely about the contemporary use of history, meaning Japan’s wartime history.”

Episodes like that of the revisionist chief of staff of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force Toshio Tamogami, fired in October for an essay he wrote claiming that Japan was not an aggressor during World War II, continue to keep Japan’s neighbors on their toes.

The front line of change is Japanese participation in “collective self-defense,” that is, in multilateral operations sanctioned by the United Nations. Japan contributed mightily during the first Gulf War in 1991, for instance — but in cash and minesweepers, not “boots on the ground.” Japan has taken criticism over the years for “checkbook diplomacy” and hiding behind its constitution while others take casualties.

What might be called a “stealth approach” to constitutional revision — through legislation and administrative procedures — was described by another panelist, Helen Hardacre, Reischauer Institute Professor of Japanese Religions and Society at Harvard. The past couple of years, she said, have been a relatively quiet time for calls for constitutional revision. But, she said, “The field of education illustrates a process in which administrative law revision smoothes the way to change the constitution.”

Education reform

The Fundamental Law of Education had been enacted by proclamation in 1947 and never revised. Almost 60 years on, there was no popular call to revise the law. But the government promoted the perception of falling academic standards, increased bullying, and a wave of youth crime. During that period, reading scores did indeed fall, so that Japanese students were merely “average” by the standards of the developed world. But despite some “awful murders” that suggested a crime wave, youth crime rates were actually on a downswing, as they had been since the 1960s.

The new law increased classroom hours and mandated the teaching of patriotism. Commentators noted a shift in emphasis from rights to duties and an increase in the authority of central government. Moreover, the new law placed responsibility for education with the family, rather than treating education as a right.

Public comments were solicited, and more than 13,000 communications were received. But some of the outspoken proponents of the government’s revisions turned out to be sakura — paid stooges, hired to mouth the government’s position.

Opposition parties chastised government for rigging its own “town meetings” and expressed skepticism that the revisions would solve problems. The revisions were called “a naked attempt to push patriotism on the people,” Hardacre said.

But they went through. As did another important change: a lifting of the ban on school field trips to the Yasukuni Shrine, the final resting place of 14 Class A war criminals. As prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi made annual visits there, to the distress of Japan’s neighbors.

‘Salami slicing’ the constitution

Another panelist, Richard J. Samuels, Ford International Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, brought out in his presentation how much change in Japanese defense policy has been possible without constitutional change — a “salami slicing” approach like that taken by Germany at the end of the Cold War, when geopolitical realities had changed.

In response to a question from the floor as to whether the current constitution is out of sync with reality, Samuel, who stressed that it wasn’t an issue on which he as an American had a vote, responded, “If I were Japanese I would be in favor of at least a reinterpretation of Article 9 to allow for Japanese participation in collective self-defense.”

He added, “From an American perspective, it would be a good thing to have a change.” Legal changes that would let Japan shoulder more of the defense burden “would be good for the alliance,” he said.

“There’s something to be said for honesty, for a fundamental belief in the robustness of Japanese democracy,” he added. “The belief that the Japanese can’t trust themselves with weapons … is archaic and dangerous.”

The symposium was part of Constitutional Revision in Japan, a research project of the Reischauer Institute. The moderator was Susan J. Pharr, Edwin O. Reischauer Professor of Japanese Politics and the director of the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations as well as director of the Reischauer Institute.

Since the mid-1990s, calls for constitutional revision have been on the upswing, with major political parties, news organizations, and civil society groups all making proposals for changes, and in many cases offering complete drafts for a revised constitution. There are many issues that reformers of various stripes would like to see addressed in a prospective revision. But, overwhelmingly, the most important one is Article 9.

And as Pharr noted, constitutionalism is not only of interest and importance per se; it also “has provided a lens for looking at a whole range of issues” within Japanese studies.

The Constitutional Revision project in Japan has become a model of Web research. Because so much of the current constitutional debate in Japan is conducted online, it’s been wide-ranging, inclusive, and accessible. But insofar as Web pages tend not to leave the same kind of trail for scholars as records on paper, the Reischauer Institute project has pioneered use of “Web harvesting” software to capture and store the output of some 80 Web sites in Japan.