Concerning statement by Shinzo Abe on Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution

By Vladimir Terekhov

On May 3 of this year, one of the most significant events of recent years marked the domestic political life of Japan. On this day, TV viewers of the country saw the record of the Prime Minister Shinzō Abe speech in front of the supporters of constitutional reforms from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

In the speech, the prime minister mainly reflected on a number of issues that were all best summarized in his passage, “I would like to express my sincere desire to transform the year 2020 into the year when the new Constitution shall finally come into force.

NEO occasionally addresses the topic of Japan’s potential constitutional reform. This is primarily because the issue concerns the most important aspect of the gradual return of the country to the “Great World Politics”, which, as it seemed, irrevocably got out of it in the autumn of 1945.

This withdrawal was legally formalized in the post-war Constitution, mainly in the Article 9, which includes two paragraphs. The first one establishes that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation”, as well as “refusal from threats or the use of armed force” against its foreign policy opponents.

According to the second paragraph of the Article, Japan pledged to “never again” possess armed forces, which was a logical consequence of the first paragraph. Indeed, why spend money on (re)establishing armed forces, if they would still be forbidden to use it?

However, the real politics has its own logic, which, just ten years after the adoption of the post-war Constitution, has led to the creation of the embryo of the Japanese armed forces. Currently, they are actually already one of the most powerful in the world, although they continue to be designated by the euphemism of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF).

Thus, starting from the turn of the 50s-60s of the last century, the second paragraph of the Article 9 gradually began to directly contradict the realities: de-facto Japan has the armed forces, and according to the Constitution, it should not.

For a long time, the apparent discrepancy between what is in reality and what “should be” was mitigated by the effectiveness of the first paragraph of the same Article. It was always possible to say that the geography of the functioning of the SDF is strictly limited by the national territory, and no threats are coming from the Japanese armed forces to the other countries.

Nevertheless, during recent years the content of the first paragraph has been subjected to the gradual erosion. Why to equip the “exceptionally defensive” SDF with weapons systems, which, with all their desire, can not be attributed to the defensive ones. For example, anaerobic diesel-electric submarines of the class “Soru”, approaching the characteristics of the NPS.

In addition, since the 1990s, the geography of SDF activity has begun to extend beyond national borders in connection with participation in UN peacekeeping operations. In the “zero’s” Japanese military forces were involved into the military operations of the Western coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It should be noted that until recently, the SDF units, which being deployed abroad have been deprived of using weapons, even for their own defense against attacks aimed at their deployment bases. Since the autumn of 2015, the Japanese militaries have become able (with unclear restrictions) to participate in the combat operations of the US, their key ally.

The first practical use of the special legislative acts package approved at that time was the withdrawal on May 1 this year of the light aircraft carrier Izumo for a combat mission to provide anti-submarine defense to a group of the US ships in the Northeast Asia region, in response to the worsening situation on the Korean Peninsula.

Nevertheless, despite its substantial “devaluation” by the actual policy being employed by the Japanese leadership in the field of defense, the Article 9 continues to be a serious obstacle to the full-fledged power tool use on the international arena for ensuring the national interests of the country.

Being a key ally, the United States, which has long expressed its desire to see Japan participate in a more active bilateral military-political alliance, continues acting in this capacity significantly.

The Japanese leadership also aspires to achieve the sharp expansion of the nature and scope of SDF activities going abroad. For this, the Article 9 should either be removed from the national Constitution altogether, or fundamentally altered through amendments.

Since the beginning of his second premiership (that is, since the end of 2012), Abe has repeatedly spoken in favor of constitutional changes. However, on May 3 this year, for the first time, he actually expressed his position on this issue in the form of an appeal to the nation.

The appeal immediately provoked the wariness of the main opposition parties, which, since last year spring, have been coordinating their actions towards the ruling LDP and, in particular, the government plans to revise Article 9.

On the parliament session the questions were addressed to the prime minister, with a request to clarify his statement, made on May 3. This was followed by a response with a proposal to “carefully read” an interview on this topic of Abe with one of the leading Japanese newspapers.

As far as we can understand, the current position of the prime minister is not to eliminate the Article 9 completely, but to amend it, legitimizing what has actually existed for a long time, that is, the availability of SDF in Japan.

However, Abe, of course, did not propose a legally completed proposal for such an amendment. This should become the subject of discussions, including the opposition participation.

Some considerations should also be made regarding the date (hypothetical) of the introduction of the amendments to the Article 9 proposed by Abe. Since it will be almost the most dramatic act in the entire post-war history of Japan, it can only be initiated by a statesman who enjoys the undoubted support of the population of the country.

Currently, Prime Minister Abe is already one of the most popular Japanese politicians of recent decades, but for initiating such a radical step he also needs to confirm his (unofficial) status of a national leader.

A suitable occasion will appear in the autumn of 2018, when Abe will assume the presidency of the LDP for the third time. As the head of the party, he will try to repeat his electoral triumph at the end of 2012. After taking the third term as prime minister, he will need another 18 months to conduct a complex procedure for the adoption of constitutional amendments.

The earlier-discussed and still-unravelling scandal involving (for the time being and mostly) the wife of the prime minister may become an obstacle to these plans.

Nevertheless, even if the development of this scandal ends with the departure of Mr. Abe from the political arena (which currently seems unlikely), the increasing trend towards constitutional reforms will continue unabated, as it is of an objective, rather than personalized, character.

In addition, the political views of the potential “heir” to the positions of LDP President and Prime Minister of the Country Shigeru Ishiba are painted in even more “right-wing” tones than that of Abe himself.

Shigeru Ishiba (an expert in the field of military-applied computer technologies) particularly spoke in favor of the creation of a Japanese analogue of the US Marine Corps (an exclusively offensive arm) and the acquiring of nuclear weapons by Japan.

But what will happen when, with the preservation of the first paragraph of the Article 9, the second paragraph (or in addition to it) will have a record with a meaning fixing the long-established realities, to be precise: Japan can still have armed forces, (naturally “designed for exclusively defensive purposes”)?

There will also be an aggravation of the (already observed) absurdity caused by the discrepancy between the above-mentioned realities and the main regulatory document of the country. This is primarily because there is no clear line distinguishing the military categories known as “offensive” from those understood to have a “defense” character (especially if the description of the latter is further qualified as “active”).

In addition, the question of why the state spends USD 50 billion annually on the maintenance of an instrument that (unlike any “normal” country) is legally forbidden to perform the basic state function, will become more heated.

There is no doubt what Japan will sacrifice to eliminate this absurdity. The ultimate victim will certainly not be the 60-year-old SDF, but the record on paper called the Constitution.

This means that after the parliament approval of the new edition of the Article 9, its further complete elimination will only be a matter of time. This will be determined mainly by the nature of the development of relations in the emerging regional strategic US-China-Japan triad.

With the entering into office of the new US president, the rate at which these relations are changing has increased. Nonetheless, it is still too early to talk about the results (even the intermediate ones).