What makes a country’s constitution legitimate? It is not exactly a question that many people are confronted with every day. Nonetheless, when asked, I think many people would suggest that a large part of what makes a constitution legitimate is that it is not drafted by some external power. The international norms of sovereignty and self-determination demand that a country should be responsible for its own constitution.
By this normative standard, the process by which Japan’s constitution was made casts serious doubts on its legitimacy. The constitution was not formed by the Japanese polity in a manner consistent with sovereignty and self-determination. If anything, it was imposed externally, through what was effectively a military occupation of Japan: the Supreme Command of Allied Powers. To make matters stranger, the idea was inspired by Douglas MacArthur, a man who is hardly the ideal spokesperson for pacifism (MacArthur argued in favor of using nuclear weapons against China during the Korean War). This history has given the constitution an uneasy place in Japan’s society. It is precisely this debate over constitutional legitimacy that has been thrust back onto the spotlight with the recent election of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as the governing party in Japan. LDP is bringing back to the forefront of political discourse the highly controversial provision in Japan’s constitution that earned Japan its reputation as a pacifist state: Article 9. As the literal English translation of Article 9 states:
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) 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.
The renunciation of “belligerency” is a central pillar of Japanese national identity that has been debated time and time again in Japanese politics. Nonetheless, many Japanese people hold this constitutional provision as something that defines them, with a majority of the public agreeing that Article 9 is a core part of their personal identity. Of course, the question then remains, what exactly does renouncing “the right of belligerency” mean? Does it simply mean Japan cannot declare war? What about peacekeeping? What about self-defence? What about possessing nuclear power, which one organization called the “Article 9 Group” argues contravenes the constitution in light of the Fukushima incident. For Shinzo Abe, the newly (re-)elected prime minister of Japan, Article 9 means “collective self-defence.” Abe has taken it to mean reinforcing the Japanese-US military alliance. He has the backing of the Diet (the Japanese legislature), with 76% of the lower house of Diet members in favor of revising Article 9 towards a less pacifist direction. As Shinzo Abe states, “I will mull new ways to cope with the new security situation surrounding Japan.” Any acute observer of international geopolitics will know that this is a rather thinly veiled reference to the potential security threat posed by an increasingly assertive China as demonstrated in the ongoing territorial dispute between Japan and China over the Diaoyu-Senkaku islands.
No doubt international security concerns, as well as Shinzo Abe’s less-than-subtle ultranationalist ideology, are motivating this political soul-searching on the meaning of Article 9. What is perhaps more interesting is his arguments for the injustice of Article 9, precisely because it was externally imposed. Shinzo Abe sees Article 9 as a “foreign constitution.” He implies its illegitimacy, arguing that it holds Japan from being a “beautiful Japan.” For him, what makes Japan beautiful is its military strength and the pride it offered to Japan at the height of its power during World War II. In addition, he has expressed his belief that World War II (or the Great East Asian War as he refers it to) was not a war of aggression but one of liberation.
For all of the constitution’s sentimentality, Shinzo Abe is sure to make people remember that it came from the country that utterly defeated Japan in World War II with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The constitution was not created due to any widespread desire for it, but it came through submission to their perceived conquerors: the United States of America. Even Washington was questioning the wisdom of forcing Japan to renounce its right of belligerency at the height of the Cold War, when the Pacific Rim was a key strategic theatre. It is somewhat of an irony today that Abe seeks to firmly establish a military alliance with the United States. Whatever the case may be, the Japanese people opted for a return of the familiar in the Liberal Democratic Party and in doing so, they may have just set course for unfamiliar territory as they grapple with what the “right of belligerency” really means.
Andrew Do is a 2014 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds a BA Hons. degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Toronto. He has previously worked at the Global Ideas Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs to engage high school students in policy issues. His interests include innovation promotion policy, foreign policy and labour market policy.