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Japan: Changes to constitution still possible

NewsNotes, November-December 2008

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who resigned in September 2007, had hoped to amend Article 9 of the country’s peace constitution to remove some of the constraints on Japan’s self defense forces. However, Japanese voters have been preoccupied with domestic economic issues in recent years, which contributed to Abe’s abrupt departure after less than a year in office. Efforts to amend the constitution have still not been completely laid to rest. Prime Minister Taro Aso, Japan’s third prime minister in less than two years, has pledged to seek a reinterpretation of Article 9 to allow Japan to exercise collective self defense missions and continue providing logistical support to the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

Article 9 provides that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes” and declares that “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” However, after addressing the UN General Assembly in September, Aso said he favored reinterpreting Article 9 to allow the country to participate in collective self-defense missions.

[See this article on Article 9 from the May-June 2007 NewsNotes.]

Under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law, Japan’s naval forces in the Indian Ocean have supplied fuel and water to U.S. and coalition ships in support of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan since 2001. The law expired Nov. 1, 2007. In January it was extended for a year through a rare parliamentary maneuver, and the navy resumed its refueling activity. Approval of a bill that would extend the law for another year was expected by the end of October.

An advisory panel appointed by Abe concluded that Article 9 would allow Japan to participate in collective self-defense missions. However, Abe resigned before such an interpretation of the constitution could be put into effect.

The former prime minister had aimed for a constitutional change in five or six years. In May 2007 the Japanese Diet passed legislation to hold a national referendum on amending Article 9. However, constitutional revision is not in the immediate offing – the bill set a three-year moratorium before an actual referendum.

Pressure to amend Japan’s constitution comes from those who favor closer collaboration with the U.S. military. The Pentagon wants a stronger Japan to counter China’s growing influence in Asia. Corporate industry in Japan seeks to overturn Article 9’s ban on arms exports. It also wants the government to lift the cap on defense spending, which historically has been one percent of GDP. In 2005 the Japanese Federation of Economic Organizations declared, “The inability to exercise our right to collective self-defense translates into denying supportive activity to our allies, and is acting as a hindrance.”

Meanwhile, Japan has been providing troops for UN peacekeeping and humanitarian operations since 1992. However, the constitution bars Japanese troops from engaging in actual combat, even in Iraq. Japan is also barred from exporting arms.

The interpretation of Japan’s constitution to date has limited militarization and helped build up trusting relationships between Japan and other Asia-Pacific states. In July 2005 the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, an international non-governmental organization, praised Article 9 as “the foundation for collective security for the entire Asia Pacific region.”

According to Akira Kawasaki of the Japanese peace organization Peace Boat, revisionists seek wider military integration with the U.S. even as they await constitutional change. “These short-term steps include incorporating overseas activities as a primary mission of the Self-Defense Forces, upgrading the Defense Agency to the Defense Ministry (December 2006), and establishing a panel to study ways to allow the exercise of the right of collective self-defense without touching the constitution itself (April 2007),” she wrote in Foreign Policy in Focus.

Meanwhile, the Global Article 9 Campaign to Abolish War was launched in 2005 to preserve Article 9 and to call for a global peace that does not rely on force. A Global Article 9 Conference to Abolish War was held last May in Japan with the support of more than 60 Japan-based civil society organizations. Some 33,000 participants from 40 countries discussed citizens’ role in bringing about disarmament. They also called on other governments to adopt similar peace clauses in their own constitutions.

Besides renouncing war as a means of settling disputes, the global campaign says Article 9 also aims to reduce military spending, end violence against women, and mitigate the negative environmental impact of the military.

Bishop Michael Goro Matsuura, president of the Japan Catholic Council for Justice and Peace, says a significant arms race is already going on in the region, “and such a constitutional change would obviously exacerbate that arms race enormously.” Catholic social teaching supports his position. The Church’s traditional “just war” theory has fallen into disrepute, and Pope Paul VI wrote in 1967, “When so many people are hungry, when so many families suffer from destitution, … every exhausting armaments race, becomes an intolerable scandal.” (Populorum Progressio, n. 53)

The movement to protect Article 9 resonates worldwide. The 1999 Hague Appeal for Peace, which drew 8,000 people from 100 countries, urged that “every Parliament should adopt a resolution prohibiting their government from going to war, like the Japanese Article 9.” The 2006 Vancouver World Peace Forum “call[ed] for governments to constitutionally renounce war.”

U.S. Americans, too, have joined the movement. Aidan Delgado, a U.S. veteran of the Iraq war, spoke at the Article 9 conference last May in Japan. He became a conscientious objector after witnessing the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. “Article 9 is international,” he said. “I have decided to walk down the same path.”

See also: Japan's peace clause endangered, says bishop, National Catholic Reporter, August 2006


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