Peacetime Japan and Article 9
Photo: Nathan Boadle via Unsplash

Last month saw the resignation of Japan’s longest serving Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. Among his regrets included his inability to alter a contentious aspect of his country’s constitution: Article 9.

Widely known as the ‘peace clause’, it was implemented as a part of the country’s 1947 Constitution and has influenced policy in foreign relations ever since. As the leader of the Liberal Democrat Party of Japan (LDP), Abe sought to fulfil their long lasting desire to reassert Japan’s military status and to use force in military conflicts,, but ultimately failed to achieve his self-imposed 2020 deadline.

Unlike other major democracies, Japan has been reluctant to amend its Constitution. In fact, no party has proposed a constitutional revision since its imposition. However, in current times, attention has been brought to the ambiguity of the ‘peace clause’ and its incompatibility with current institutions. Article 9 was imposed by US led forces following Japan’s surrender in World War II, and unsurprisingly has remained a controversial and ambiguous part of Japanese law.

The debate circulates around the ‘peace clause’ of the article, comprised of two parts;

“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.”

It is widely agreed that renouncing their right to declare war was monumental in the aftermath of an aggressive, imperialist campaign in the Pacific. It meant that Japan had a legal commitment to peace and could hold itself accountable for its prior actions. Its understanding by both the Japanese people and the state is evident in its enduring success and preservation into the 21st century.

Moreover, it is a defence mechanism to ensure the country does not regress to its former hawkish foreign policy and aggressive colonialism which led to great damage in the country’s sphere of influence. Present political relations in East Asia remain tense due to numerous disagreements over territory and nuclear hostility,  such as the Liancourt Rocks dispute and North Korea’s highly dangerous missile testing. Consequently, Article 9 stands as a paramount fail-safe mechanism to protect both Japan and its neighbours from escalating conflicts.

Despite the tangible success of the ‘peace clause’, Japan has continued to maintain self-defence forces (known as the JSDF), which are primarily used for internal defence and productivity. Their size, capabilities, and expenditure, however, have evolved substantially since their conception, alongside developing interpretations of Article 9. Presently, they are utilised for ‘self-defence’ and are seen as an extension to the police force, and are regarded as constitutional by the state as their actions do not involve military combat.

Whilst this de facto military presence has been widely accepted in Japan, their constitutional legitimacy has been questioned by critics. Maintaining the ninth largest military budget in the world as of 2019, the JSDF and its leaders have come under fire, and many are concerned about the future of Japan’s military presence.  However, many groups are in total opposition to this view, believing the Constitution does not do enough to protect Japan from conflict or a potential invasion, and seek to bolster their military capabilities and scope through a constitutional amendment.

Arguably the most outspoken PM Japan has had on this issue, Abe was in keen pursuit of revising Article 9. He believed the ‘peace clause’ was too restrictive on Japan’s rights to defend itself and felt any future offensive operations should be recognised by the Constitution. The legitimacy of his concern can be seen in North Korea’s increasingly aggressive attitude and actions towards Japan, primarily involving the use of nuclear missile testing. The proximity of the two countries, in combination with North Korea’s missile testing in late 2019, have left Japan feeling threatened. 

Certainly, as a sovereign state, Japan shares “the inherent right of collective self-defense”as outlined by Article 51 of the UN Charter, however, has since 1954 believed this would violate the peace clause as it stands. Subsequently, advocates feel it well within the country’s rights to ameliorate the Constitution if there is public and political support to do so. Parties have suggested adding an explicit clause authorising self-defence upon direct attack of Japan, or one that legitimises the JSDF,  but support for such a motion has yet to be found even in the present day.

By the same token, Japanese nationalists and traditionalists also feel strongly in favour of revision. These opponents of Article 9 critique its priortisation of individual rights over the peoples’ discerned duty to serve the nation. While Japan is a rapidly developing country in terms of cultural and social attitudes, devotion to one’s country is still promoted and believed to be important. Nostalgia for imperial Japan, although limited, is evident in this opposition, not helped by the nation’s rapidly aging population in the 21st century.

Others point to the JSDF’s status and scope as reason to amend the Constitution. Its composition of 160,000 soldiers, divided into land, air, and naval divisions, directly contradicts the peace clauses’s emphasis on rejecting their military presence across all types. For Abe and others, their prominent role in Japanese society and the interpretable nature of Article 9 has validated their presence, thus indicating the need for an additional clause.

On the other hand, Japan’s rejection of military force to resolve conflicts has positively impacted a myriad of other policies. For example, Japan has some of the toughest restrictions on arms exports, having imposed a total ban until 2014, and remains to be governed by its ‘Three Principles on Arms Exports’. Certainly, Article 9 and its related policies are perceived as an effective model of peace by its Asian neighbours and globally respected for its pacifist approach.

In terms of international relations, Japan has been cooperative in lending peace-keeping forces as part of UN and counter-terrorism efforts. This has included operations across Asia as well as further ventures into the Indian Ocean in response to the 9/11 attacks. Each involvement has done little to quell the issue at hand, with proponents of the peace-clause arguing the actions undermine the Constitution, and conversely opponents perceiving it as evidence for a legitimate review of Japan’s foreign and military policy.

Furthermore, as a part of the G8, Japan has asserted itself as a global political and economic power, becoming increasingly involved in multilateral discussions of peace and conflict. Whilst this indicates another success of Article 9, it moreover places the country at the centre of international tensions and disputes, both in terms of trade and peace-keeping. As Japan settles into its new world role it will have to maintain a steady approach to its increasing powers in order to avoid further constitutional conflict.

Public support for Article 9 has been nothing short of inconsistent, with polls indicating divergent attitudes depending on the time or current generation. However, there is very little impetus for change from the Japanese people presently. The most recent poll concluded that  69% of all respondents opposed a revision to war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution. By comparison, only 29.9% shared PM Abe’s view, reflecting general opposition, and perhaps influencing his gradualist approach to the issue whilst in office.

In the 21st century, Japan has rebranded itself as an economic and cultural powerhouse. The retention of Article 9 allows it to simultaneously discontinue its belligerent past whilst preventing it happening again. It has become such an integral part of Japanese policy, spilling over into all areas and industries, yet simultaneously its influence is latent. There are arguably far more pressing issues facing Japan currently that simply undermine any radical discussions about Constitutional reform.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has further overshadowed the Article 9 debate in Japan. Abe’s intentions for discussions this year coincided with a need to prioritise and respond to the virus. Subsequently, time and resources were diverted away from political and constitutional debate, additionally suspending campaign tours around the issues. Opposition and coalition leaders alike turned down further talks regarding the issue, citing the pandemic as not the best time to hold talks about Japan’s status and influence internationally through a potential return to military force.

With the rest of the LDP’s term due to end in September 2021, there is little likelihood that progress on the Article 9 debate will occur. Like with most written Constitutions, the amendment process is lengthy. Japan’s latest peace and security legislation related to Article 9 was a four-month-long affair  and did little to quell the current controversy. Furthermore, the delay of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to next year will furthermore make it difficult to seriously consider amending the Constitution for the rest of the LDP’s current term in office, no matter how proactive Abe’s successor is.

In closing, it is evident that the Article 9 debate is a small yet highly crucial part of Japanese politics.  Despite being unable to resolve the issue personally, perhaps Abe’s hopes for Japan’s military future will be realised by successive governments as Japan settles into a new government in a new decade.