A New Role for Japan’s Military

Japanese people have been divided over whether to revise the Constitution since almost as soon as it was promulgated in 1946. The debate has centered on Article 9, the so-called peace clause. And it has been fundamentally miscast.

Article 9 comprises two paragraphs. In the first, Japan renounces “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” This text tracks the language of the Charter of the United Nations, which has been ratified by almost all the countries of the world. In the second paragraph of Article 9, Japan renounces maintaining any “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.” No other country has imposed such a restriction on itself.

Pacifists who oppose amending Article 9 say that to do so would mean reneging on Japan’s commitment to peace. But this is to mischaracterize the issue: Most proponents of a revision — I am among them — are not suggesting that Japan backtrack on its renunciation of war in the first clause of Article 9. We argue only for amending the second clause of Article 9, so that Japan can have a military force that is better able to defend both the country and international peace and security.

In 1954, the Japanese government created the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in order to alleviate the United States’ burden of ensuring Japan’s security. At the time it argued for interpreting Article 9 (2) as recognizing Japan’s sovereign right to have a small military force. (The Supreme Court supported this reading in a 1959 ruling.) This construction — which has come to be known as the “minimum necessary level” — allowed the establishment of a force to defend Japan within its territory. But it did not allow the SDF to operate overseas. This is the reason that Japan could not join the coalition of multinational forces that fought against Saddam Hussein’s army during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, not even to provide logistical support.

This interpretation still largely applies today, with only minor exceptions. In 1992, Japan enacted laws enabling the SDF to participate overseas, but only in U.N. peacekeeping operations, with the caveat that Japanese peacekeepers could use their weapons only to defend themselves, or in humanitarian relief missions. Under current Japanese law, the force still may not engage in defense cooperation with the United States outside Japanese territory.

Last July, the Abe administration, which was voted back into power in late 2012, proposed reinterpreting Article 9 to further expand the SDF’s activities. It has recently sent to the Diet several bills proposing, among other things, that the force be allowed to assist U.S. forces overseas when Japan’s security is threatened, defend U.N. peacekeepers from other countries if they come under attack, and conduct missions, with weapons, to rescue Japanese nationals overseas.

Even if all these bills pass, however, the SDF would remain exclusively defense-oriented and the most strictly bound military among all the major powers. Therefore, the only way Japan can get the force it needs is first to amend Article 9 (2).

The clause should be revised so as to recognize Japan’s right of individual and collective self-defense, both of which are already protected by the U.N. Charter. It should also be modified to state that the SDF is the country’s military defense force and that it will contribute to international peace and stability through the United Nations and other international organizations.

But amending the Constitution is an onerous process, requiring at least a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet and a simple majority in a national referendum. It will also require overcoming the misguided objections of the reflexively antiwar set.

Some people, wary of the belligerence of Imperial Japan in the 1930s worry that amending Article 9 could pave the way for a resurgence of militarism. But these fears are groundless. In the 1930s, while Japan was facing the strict customs policies of the great powers, its military leadership saw expansionism as necessary for the country’s security and prosperity. China was much weaker. And Japan’s civilian authorities had little institutional control over the generals.

Today, partly as a result of World War II, the prime minister has much greater oversight over the military. More important still, Japan now understands that its prosperity and stability depend on global trade and on the peaceful resolution of any disputes. As one of the main beneficiaries of the international liberal order today, Japan is committed to the system — and it is committed to defending it, particularly against rising states like China, which are challenging the status quo. A moderate, sensible revision of the Constitution would be a modest step toward making Japan both a normal country and a more effective protector of the international order — and no less peace-loving.

Shinichi Kitaoka, a former ambassador of Japan to the United Nations, is president of International University of Japan.

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