War & Military

Histories of the Present: Japan’s Constitution & Active vs. Passive Peacemaking

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 belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

These paragraphs from Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution were endorsed by the Japanese Diet on 3 November 1946 and came in to effect on 3 May 1947 with the promulgation of the Constitution. Although the Constitution was drafted by the US during the Allied occupation, the Allied Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur claimed that Prime Minister Shidehara Kijūrō suggested its inclusion (this has been disputed by some commentators). Whatever the case may have actually been, Article 9 presents to the world a legal document that promotes the concept of peacemaking as an active political statement, with the absence of conflict as a written part of the most fundamental definitions of the nation-state. The military industry in Japan is subsequently a limited one, as its defense does not require equipment utilized for offensive purposes (such as long range missiles).

ProArticle9 Demo May 2014: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Proarticle9demo-may2014nearginza.jpg
ProArticle9 Demo May 2014, Image credit: Wikipedia. 

But the peaceful ideals of the constitution were very quickly challenged in prac-tice by political forces in the US as well as in Japan. Following the outbreak of the Korean War, MacArthur approved the creation of a “National Police Reserve” (NPR), which was seen by leading politicians in Japan as a fledgling army. Japanese were also sent to the Korean War zone in a number of quasi-military roles, including minesweeping. Some refused to obey US commands, claiming that these violated the new constitution. In 1954 the NPR was renamed the Self Defense Force (SDF). The SDF has often been challenged as unconstitutional but this has been countered by arguments that the SDF is not a military but a national police force and that self-defense is the right of every nation.

Article 9 has enjoyed strong domestic support with approval ratings between the 1960s to the 1980s reaching 70 to 90 percent. This strong public support has not, however, prevented successive governments from seeking to review the Constitution and the tenet of Article 9. Increasing public financial support for the SDF in the 1980s meant that by the end of the decade Japan was ranked third in the world in defense expenditure. Japan’s close relationship with the US has also led to increased pressure for an active role in regional defense at odds with the provisions of Article 9. This pressure has been most marked at various points of conflict over the past few decades: the Gulf War, 9/11 and the War in Iraq. On 26 April 1991 the SDF was deployed for the first time overseas, sending minesweepers to the Persian Gulf. On 19 August the following year SDF troops were sent on a peacekeeping mission to Cambodia. In 2001, as a result of the 9/11 attacks in the US, Japan passed the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law which placed further pressure on notions of ‘self-defense’ leading to the dispatch of SDF maritime self defense ships. In January 2004, the then Prime Minister Koizumi Junichirō, sent 9,600 SDF ground personnel to Iraq under the Iraq War Law.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. Image credit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/37/Shinzo_Abe.jpg/866px-Shinzo_Abe.jpg
Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. Image credit: Wikimedia.

In July this year Prime Minister Abe Shinzōskirted constitutional amendment procedures to endorse a ‘reinterpretation’ of Article 9. This has led to increased powers for the SDF to allow the exercise of collective defense to aide allies if war is declared against them. A variety of media responses have followed, ranging from condemnation (mostly from Asia), to dispassionate observation and mild surprise. One article by David Welch of Canada’s Waterloo University argues that the protests over the constitutional reinterpretation are “hysterical”, and claims that Prime Minister Abe “has never said or done anything to indicate that he would like to rewind the clock 80 years”. Such statements are built on a very simple dichotomy between war and peace, and between past and present. They assume that, if that Japanese government of today does not resemble the military governments of the late 1930s and early 1940s, Japan is not remilitarising; and that, if Japan is not engaged in actual armed conflict, it is “peaceful”.

A very different perspective comes from the group of Japanese citizens (among them Nobel laureate Ōe Kenzaburō) who nominated the “Japanese people who conserve Article 9” for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Although their chances of winning the prize are small, the point they make is a vital one. Peace-making is an active process, not just an absence of war.

Nobel Laureate and Peace Activist Ōe Kenzaburō
Nobel Laureate and Peace Activist Oe Kenzaburo. Image credit: Wikipedia.

For decades, grassroots groups of citizens who support Japan’s peace constitution have been engaged in small-scale but valuable activities to build peace between Japan and its neighbours. These have included creating museums that preserve the memory of Japanese aggression in Asia, and educate children to develop visions of a peaceful future – like the Grassroots House Peace Museum in the southern Japanese city of Kochi. Numerous Japanese citizens have also built memorials to the victims of Japan’s wartime aggression, or developed cross border reconciliation projects, in their own local towns and villages.

Under the Abe administration, which seeks to eradicate what it calls the “masochistic” view of Japanese history, these grassroots peace-building initiatives are under threat. Local authorities in Gunma Prefecture have recently ordered the removal of a monument erected by local citizens to Korean wartime forced labourers, and similar local projects elsewhere are also under fierce attack from nationalist groups. Critical references to the wartime past are rapidly fading from school curricula and from the mass media as the nationalist tide both within and outside government rises.

The Japanese group who have nominated Article 9 and its supporters for the Nobel Peace Prize are not simply seeking recognition for a historical act of constitution making. They are asking the rest of the world to rethink our assumptions about the nature of national constitutions, war and peace-making. Whether or not Article 9 receives the prize, this is a challenge to which we should respond with enthusiasm.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *