This past December, the kanji kita (北), meaning “north,” was chosen by the Japanese public as the character best capturing the zeitgeist of life in Japan in 2017. The Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation that conducts the survey, said that 北 received the most votes because of the numerous missile launches and nuclear tests from North Korea, among other things.
The kanji 北 is also the first character in the word for Beijing (北京) where it means “northern capital.” In that regard, any concerns about the “north” and the intentions of Kim Jong Un are also wrapped up in a larger regional context of China’s alliance with North Korea as well as the territorial disputes between Japan and China in the East China Sea.
The territorial dispute centers on a group of uninhabited islands — called the Senkaku Islands by the Japanese and the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese — controlled by Japan but challenged by the Chinese and Taiwanese governments, in part due to the discovery of potential undersea oil reserves in the area in 1968.
Although security challenges like North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs — as well as China’s growing military capabilities — are top concerns for the Japanese government and public, the extent to which Japan can use its own defense capabilities to address these challenges has been limited due to its so-called “pacifist” constitution that forever renounced military aggression and the use of force to settle international disputes.
The Origin of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces
Within Japan’s constitution, there are two paragraphs that make up Article 9, often cited as the “pacifist” clause because it forbids Japan from using military force to start a war. In the first paragraph, Japan gives up its right to make war. The second follows up by affirming that Japan will not possess “land, sea and air forces.”
At the conclusion of WWII, U.S. occupying forces intended Article 9 to ensure Japan adopted the peaceful principles of a post-war United Nations. However, the victory of China’s Communist Party during the country’s 1949 civil war and the conflict on the Korean Peninsula from 1951 to 1953 led to a shift in East Asia’s security landscape. The United States, therefore, encouraged Japan to invest in its own security — its own “self-defense,” if you will — in order to address these security challenges.
With American occupation forces deployed on the Korean Peninsula, its commanders authorized the creation of a Japanese National Police Reserve (NPR) tasked with protecting Japan from invasion of outside forces. In 1954, this would become the 110,000 strong Japanese Self Defense Force — a fighting unit not mentioned in Article 9 (or anywhere) in the constitution.
Abe’s First Push for Collective Self-Defense
In 2007, during his first tenure as Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe began his first steps to move Japan toward an altered version of Article 9. He gathered a panel of 13 experts to study whether a revision would improve Japan’s security. In 2008, the panel — called the Yanai Commission — concluded that both Japan’s security and the U.S.-Japan alliance were jeopardized by existing policies. The panel recommended a revision of Article 9 so Japan could exercise its right to collective self-defense given to U.N. member states, which would allow the SDF to come to the aid of allies under armed attack with no preconditions.
The concept of “collective self-defense” comes from the United Nations Charter, which defines it as an inherent right of a country to form alliances and use force if necessary to defend itself from attack. In its recommendations, the Yanai Commission cited the threats of North Korea, China and Russia.
However, the commission’s findings were unpopular with a Japanese public that wanted to keep Article 9 inviolate. The pushback on the issue forced Abe to postpone his plans for revision. In September 2007, Abe abruptly resigned. Party officials cited poor health as the main reason for his stepping down, but in press conferences at the time, Abe acknowledged his inability to pursue further policy reforms without the public’s trust.
After his re-election in 2012, Abe rallied support from a Liberal Democratic Party majority in the Diet to establish a solid foundation to push through new agendas — including the potential to change the constitution. Abe first set out to revise Article 96, which outlines the requirements for revising the constitution: a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet and a majority vote in a national referendum. Abe proposed to loosen these restrictions to require only a simple majority in each house with no vote required from the people.
Once again, a majority of the Japanese public — and the LDP’s coalition partner, the Komeito Party — opposed Abe’s plan. The Japanese people, comfortable with their peaceful constitution and place in the world, were overwhelmingly against revising their governing principles because they worried that Japan might be drawn into wars by the United States. The Komeito Party doctrine is strongly rooted in the tenets set out in the constitution and Abe’s strategy not only challenged these, but even stirred disagreement within his own party.
In response, the Prime Minister decided the best policy would be to “reinterpret” the constitution, rather than revise it. This would be less controversial, yet allow for a more involved SDF in regional contingencies were Japan threatened.
Abe’s Successful Reinterpretation of Article 9
In 2014, Abe appointed a new Director General to the Cabinet Legislative Bureau (CLB), a powerful legal counsel responsible for interpreting Japan’s constitutional restriction on the right of exert collective self-defense. He also reconvened the Yanai Commission and requested that it conduct a second study to look at whether the Japanese government should reinterpret Article 9. The Commission found that the regional security challenges Japan faced — the North Korea nuclear and cyber threat along with China’s growing military might — had become even more severe than in 2007, when the commission was first convened. The Commission also found it necessary to reinterpret Article 9 in order to permit the SDF to participate in collective security operations due to said security challenges.
The report was well received by the CLB. That year, the ruling government overturned the original interpretation of Article 9 and for the first time since the end of World War II, Japan allowed itself to exercise collective self-defense in limited circumstances.
After Abe’s reinterpretation victory, the United States expressed support for the decision. In April 2015, both countries updated the operational guidelines for the U.S.-Japan Alliance for the first time since 1997.
The updated guidelines recognized Abe’s reinterpretation and changed to work with the new, global nature of the alliance. To that end, Japan passed its new security laws in September 2015. These allowed the JSDF to exercise collective self-defense in four scenarios as outlined by the CLB in 2014:
- Defending U.S. naval ships from attack in international waters while those ships are protecting Japan.
- Intercepting ballistic missiles targeting the U.S. and U.S. bases in the Pacific theater.
- Allowing GSDF to use weapons to respond to attacks on allied forces during peacekeeping operations.
- Providing logistical support to foreign forces during peacekeeping operations.
While the self-defense force mandate is still limited, the reinterpretation permits it to operate with allies and United Nations Peacekeepers in limited circumstances outside Japan, which allows for increased coordination between the U.S. military and the JSDF, including evacuation as well as search and rescue missions.
Public Opposition and Obstacles to Further Reform
In May 2017 — the 70th anniversary of the enactment of the postwar constitution — Abe announced once again that he intended to redraft the constitution by 2020. He reaffirmed those plans for revision once more after the LDP won the snap election for Lower House seats later that October.
The re-activation of Japan’s Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB) is another recent development that shows Abe’s resolve to expand the SDF’s role. The ARDB is the first amphibious unit deployed since World War II, trained to counter invaders occupying Japanese islands along the edge of the East China Sea that Tokyo fears are vulnerable to attack by China.
A recent mail-in survey conducted by Kyodo News found approximately 60 percent of Japanese people opposed to Abe's plan to amend the constitution, a historical symbol of Japanese pacifism, and would like it to remain intact. The poll also highlighted the public's support for its war-renouncing Article 9, with 69 percent responding that it’s the reason Japan has never used force overseas since the end of World War II. Another worry is that constitutional reform will create a precedent for Abe’s successors who might want to give the SDF an even greater role beyond self-defense. Neighboring countries are also concerned that this would be a step towards a remilitarized Japan.
Abe has stated that he doesn’t plan to expand the overall role of the SDF and also promised to keep the original two paragraphs of Article 9 renouncing war. However, he is willing to revise it by adding a third clause that would recognize the JSDF as a constitutional, professional military organization with the mission of defending Japan.
But revising the constitution will not be easy. Even though the LDP–Komeito coalition currently enjoys a 2/3 majority in both houses of the Diet, the results of a national vote are uncertain. If the referendum isn’t approved by a majority vote from the people, it will not pass.
Whether or not Japan’s security challenges will encourage the Japanese public to support a constitutional revision is a question of political ideals. And right now, here’s a clash between Japan’s decades-long identity as a pacifist nation and Abe’s current dream to make Japan a normal, democratic power with a strong military.
It’s important not to underestimate public sentiment against these changes. Opponents of Abe’s efforts to reinterpret and change the constitution have not been shy about voicing their opinions. In fact, as members of the Diet were voting on the security bill, some 13,000 people gathered outside to protest its passage. A brawl broke out between members of the opposition and supporters, showing just how passionate both sides feel about the implications of such legislation.
The Future of Japan’s Defense Policy
While this change was met with strong opposition, supporters of the new security bill emphasize a need for Japan’s increased role in its alliance with the United States, its ability to respond to conflicts outside of Japanese territory and the SDF’s operational freedom to tackle overseas peacekeeping situations. However, it remains uncertain whether Abe will accomplish his goal of amending the constitution to further reform the role of the SDF. Future alterations will largely depend on his success in September’s LDP leadership election. According to a recent article in Sasakawa U.S.A.’s Japan Political Pulse series, Abe’s recently suffered a significant drop in his public approval rating after government scandals stirred distrust among the public concerning his leadership.
As Abe grapples with public support, North Korea’s unexpected diplomatic overtures — specifically, agreeing to separate bilateral meetings with the presidents of the Republic of Korea and the United States — presents Japan’s leadership with a great level of uncertainty concerning the impact of these summit meetings on its national security.
Although tension stemming from North Korea’s past provocations appears to be easing, the country’s existing arsenal of short-range missiles and its chemical and biological weapons still present a very serious threat for Japan. Without any firm and verifiable concessions from North Korea, fear of rogue action by North Korea is still a strong reality in Japan due to the two nations’ close proximity.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Abe discussed these security concerns at their Mar-a-Lago summit meeting in April, their third since Trump took office. The two leaders reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance to regional stability and expressed their commitment to working towards the denuclearization of North Korea as well as the elimination of its ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Although there are tremors of uncertainty stemming from Japan’s domestic politics on whether Abe will push for a revision of Article 9, Japan remains an important ally of the United States and the SDF will continue to play a crucial role in U.S.-Japan security cooperation in the region.
At the moment, any prospect of constitutional revision remains unclear and certainly controversial.
(Editing by Jeff W Richards, Japan Today)
Brittney Washington is a program assistant at the Sasakawa USA, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening U.S.-Japan relations. Kangkyu “David” Lee, former program assistant at Sasakawa USA, is now an East & Southeast Asia Domain Expert at Dataminr.© Japan Today