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Japan Facts: Peace Constitution

SNA (Tokyo) — The Japanese Constitution is an unique and controversial document, requiring that the nation maintain a pacifist stance in world affairs. But how did it come to be?

It’s a legacy of Japan’s defeat in World War II. At the beginning of the US Occupation, the top priority was to ensure that militarist Japan could never rise again to threaten the world. Rather than rewrite the Emperor-centric Meiji Constitution, a much more liberal document was prepared by General MacArthur’s staff in early 1946. Some conservative postwar politicians such as Shigeru Yoshida embraced this project, both to eliminate the political power of the Imperial Army and Navy, as well as to focus on the economic revival of the defeated nation.

The unique section of Japan’s Constitution is Article Nine, which reads:

1. 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.

2. 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.

When Japan regained its political independence in 1952, it was a sovereign nation with no military forces at all. But Prime Minister Yoshida soon backtracked, with US support, and moved away from the strict pacifism mandated by the Constitution. And so, in July 1954, the Self-Defense Forces were inaugurated. This was essentially a military force, but was restricted in its budget, equipment, and training to focus solely on home island defense. The political power of the Defense Agency was also kept carefully circumscribed for many decades.

It was not only MacArthur and his staff who feared a revival of Japanese militarism. The large majority of ordinary Japanese people themselves had suffered greatly both in the war and under the military regime that had started the war. The spirit of the Peace Constitution was fully embraced by mainstream Japanese culture.

But not everyone is a fan of the Peace Constitution. The current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for example, attaches to a conservative stream of thought which finds pacifism to be dishonorable as well as out of touch with the security needs of the nation.

Since the 1990s the Self-Defense Forces have begun to be sent abroad on various peacekeeping missions, the Iraq War being the most controversial. The defense-only restrictions that had been maintained for decades were removed one by one, and the Defense Agency became the Defense Ministry in 2007, a policy enacted by Abe himself during his first term as prime minister. However, Abe’s consistent efforts to remilitarize Japan—something which is now pushed strongly by the United States as well—has been met by large-scale protests from those who wish to maintain some semblance of official pacifism, and who fear that their leaders are now a little too eager to engage in military actions abroad.

Therefore, in order to win passage of a revision to Article Nine, Prime Minister Abe favors a much more modest proposal than he would otherwise advocate. Abe suggests leaving the controversial second paragraph in place, but then adding a new third paragraph that would explicitly endorse the role of the Self-Defense Forces.

Some critics point out that Abe’s third paragraph would, in effect, render the second paragraph meaningless, even if it remained in the document. Some ruling party conservatives advocate a more straightforward plan of eliminating paragraph two altogether. Without that single paragraph, Japan’s Constitution loses its unique pacifist restrictions.

The struggle over Article Nine of the Constitution is among the most divisive political questions in Japan, with the conservatives and the rightwing demanding revision, and liberals and the left desiring to maintain the traditional postwar policies.

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