Japan’s Political and Constitutional Crossroads

Japan is at a constitutional — and political — crossroads. In the wake of dispatch of GSDF forces to Iraq and the MSDF fleet to the Persian Gulf, the pacifist constitution faces the possibility of revision for the first time since its adoption during the postwar occupation sixty years ago. Also well advanced is a parallel effort to revise the Fundamental Law of Education, which was adopted as a companion to the constitution, in an effort to enshrine the nurturing of patriotism as a goal of the educational system. Combined with the deepening integration of Japan’s Self Defense Forces and the US military in an expanded conception of the alliance, these moves signal the transformation of Japan’s posture on the world scene.


Since its founding in 1955, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has repeatedly called for revision of the constitution. Over the decades, attempts to carry out this policy faltered, primarily because the pacifist and democratic clauses of the constitution enjoyed broad support among the Japanese people. Unable to mobilize the two-thirds vote of both houses of the Diet required for revising the constitution, LDP efforts never went beyond the discussion stage.


In the late 1990s, the prospects for revision began to shift. The centrist Democratic Party of Japan, which is not averse to revision, replaced the strongly anti-revision Social Democratic Party as the main opposition party, while continuing tensions with North Korea began to erode public support for pacifism. Sensing that its moment had arrived, the LDP set up research commissions on the constitution in both houses of the Diet in January 2000 to begin the lengthy process of building a consensus in favor of revision. While that consensus has been hard to come by (the commissions issued reports in the spring of 2005 that reflected a range of opinion), the LDP nevertheless drafted an extensive set of revisions, which it announced last October.


The Diet also began deliberating a national referendum law, establishing the process for ratifying constitutional revisions once they have passed the Diet (a majority vote of the Japanese public is required under the present constitution). Early drafts of this law contained controversial provisions that restricted media reporting before the referendum vote. These provisions have since been replaced by an appeal for media self-restraint. An agreement has not yet been reached on the age of eligibility to vote in the referendum and several other matters.


None of these legislative moves reached fruition during the Diet session that ended in June, and there is as yet no timetable for carrying out the revision of the constitution. The LDP is now preoccupied with choosing a successor to prime minister Koizumi Junichiro, whose term expires in September. While it remains to be seen how high a priority the next prime minister will place on revising the constitution, the process is likely to take several years to run its course.


The proposed revision has sparked considerable debate and citizen activism, which is in the subject of this “zadankai.” The zadankai — round-table discussion — is a staple of Japanese journalism. Bringing together commentators from divergent fields, the discussion is free wheeling. This is the first of what we hope will be a continuing series of Japan Focus discussions.


The round table took place in mid-May at the International House in Tokyo. The participants were:


John Junkerman, a Tokyo-based American documentary filmmaker, whose latest film is the award-winning “Japan’s Peace Constitution.” The film addresses the history of the constitution and the implications of its revision from an international perspective, featuring interviews with historian John Dower, political scientist Chalmers Johnson, and sociologist Hidaka Rokuro, as well as writers and historians from Korea, China, and the Middle East. The English version of the film is available from First Run Icarus Films (www.frif.com).


Gavan McCormack, professor in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University and visiting professor at International Christian University in Tokyo (2003 to 2005). He is the author, with Glenn Hook, of Japan’s Contested Constitution (Routledge, 2001). His most recent book is Target North Korea: Pushing North Korea to the Brink of Nuclear Catastrophe (Nation Books, 2004). He is a Japan Focus coordinator.


David McNeill, a Japan-based correspondent, writes regularly for a number of publications, including the London Independent and the Irish Times. He teaches a course on media and politics at Sophia University and is a Japan Focus coordinator.


The Politics of Constitutional Revision


John Junkerman (JJ): We started production on the film “Japan’s Peace Constitution” in January 2004. This was just about the time that the Self Defense Force was dispatched to join the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq. Around the same time both the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan announced that they would each be releasing proposals for revising the constitution during 2005 (the LDP in time for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the party in the fall of the year). It was pretty clear what they had in mind: revise the constitution, particularly the no-war clause, Article 9, to make it easier for Japan to participate in America’s overseas military adventures. We set out to make a film that examines the implications of such a move from an international perspective.


The film was finished in April 2005 and it has been in distribution ever since. It’s been remarkably well received, far beyond our expectations, and for a documentary, it’s got very long legs. It’s been shown at perhaps 200 independent screenings, of which I’ve spoken at about 50 or so, and we’re still doing two or three screenings a week. It’s sold thousands of copies in DVD, which are often passed around or used for informal screenings, so its been seen by a fairly substantial audience. What’s been impressive to us is the level of concern; it’s a serious subject and not a very flashy documentary, but people come out in good numbers, and the film is being used in their organizing efforts.


I’ve been impressed with how rich a subject the constitution is. It’s a prism that lets you look at so many aspects of postwar Japanese history: the history of the constitution itself, the history of the practice of democracy as it developed in Japan, the relationship between Japan and the United States, and between Japan and its Asian neighbors. All of these things come into play, so when I talk about the film, I rarely focus on the constitution itself, but it’s these surrounding issues that we end up talking about. Particularly with the war in Iraq, what we have right in front of us is the kind of military activity Japan would be enabled to engage in, so addressing the proposed changes to the constitution is not a theoretical discussion, it’s a real, practical discussion. I thought perhaps we could talk about the specific issues and prospects for revising the constitution, as well as the broader context.


I’d like to start with an observation. When we did our first screenings of the film a year ago, people were very tentative, and there was a sense of “this is a very important issue but I don’t know how in the world we’re going to stop it.” There was a sense of a locomotive in motion and it being essentially unstoppable. “How do we talk about the subject, how do we reach people and awaken them to its importance?” A large majority of Diet members favored changing the constitution, and public opinion polls showed the public supported it too. But as the year unfolded, that sense has changed, so now people are speaking with much greater confidence, they’re saying, “OK, this is what we need to do, so let’s go out and do it. Maybe we can stop this thing after all.”


Constitutional Revision and the Citizens Movement


The big change, I think, has been the emergence of the Article 9 Associations (9-jo no Kai). These have been established throughout the country in response to an appeal to defend Article 9, which was put out by nine writers and activists in June 2004. Some 4,700 of these associations have now been officially registered. Their number is growing steadily, so two or three months ago their website said 4,000. Last week it was 4,700 and it’s quickly approaching 5,000. [Editor’s note: As of June 10, the figure stood at 5,174.]


David McNeill (DM): What’s the character of the associations? When I look at their web page, I see that the leaders are quite elderly. What are the chapters like?


JJ: The chapters range widely. There are city-wide chapters, Nara has a very big one, Osaka also; then there are ward-level chapters in many of the wards of Tokyo; there are occupational chapters (I’m a member of the chapter for film people, there’s another for mass media people, another for people involved with medicine). Then there are smaller ones, some on a neighborhood scale. I brought along some sembei that were produced by the West Kawagoe Article 9 Association, which had a screening of the film the other day, with over 300 people attending. I was at Shinshu University a few weeks ago, and they’re starting one there, and others at other universities. Some are quite small; there’s no threshold, and the only requirement is that you are opposed to changing Article 9. The Communist Party has gotten behind this in a big way and undoubtedly, with some of the chapters, the core is formed by Communist Party activists. But the appeal itself was issued by people who don’t have a relationship to any party, they’re basically veterans of the citizen’s movements of the 1960s and 70s — Oe Kenzaburo, Oda Makoto, Tsurumi Shunsuke, and six others.


So, one, it’s grown so rapidly that people are very much encouraged, and there is a real sense that there’s a possibility that it can actually develop into a large citizen’s movement. Second, the issue of the constitution has, in a sense, been taken back from the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party. By default, it was their issue, and a year ago, if you raised the issue of the constitution, you were seen as being likely a member of one of the leftist parties, because they were the only people talking about it until that time. But now, with this non-party affiliated movement around Article 9, a lot of mobilization, a lot of publicity, it’s become once again a citizens’ issue.


Gavan McCormack (GM): So it’s a single, nationally coordinated Beheiren-type movement, it’s Beheiren [Citizens’ League for Peace in Vietnam, active from 1965 to 1974] updated, in the sense that it brought together people who were against the Vietnam War, and whatever politics they had otherwise was irrelevant.


JJ: I think that’s probably a fair way to put it. And the core activists are not in their 70s or 80s. Many are people in their 50s who were active at the time of the Vietnam War. But it’s not centrally coordinated at all, it’s very much a grassroots movement. The appeal was sent out, they publish a minimal amount of support materials, some pamphlets, some videos, but it’s largely lacking in coordination, which is both its strength and its weakness, I think.


GM: This was true of Beheiren as well. Whoever wanted to could call themselves a Beheiren chapter, so in that sense it’s not dissimilar.


DM: But that raises the question, how exactly are they going to apply pressure on the state to prevent constitutional revision. Do they have a plan of action, or are they simply a loose grassroots federation that hopes in some loose way to bring about change?


JJ: I think the latter, and intentionally so, because there was a sense that getting people to line up behind one core group of leaders was not going to happen. But it does leave every chapter with the job of defining their own direction, which means, for the most part, they’ve been holding meetings and doing education. They’ll bring in speakers. For example, Komori Yoichi, the secretary-general of the association and a professor at the University of Tokyo, is giving talks two or three times a week. He’s a very effective speaker and has a great way of making the issue accessible and compelling. So, there’s a tremendous amount of education going on, and our film is a part of that, a way to get the conversation started. And from there, where do you go? There’s going to be a meeting in June for activists from this organization to share their experiences about how to organize effectively. Aside from that there was a gathering of 9500 people in Makihara last July, the first anniversary of the appeal. But other than that, it’s very decentralized, which is a strength, since education really needs to be done with people reaching out to their neighbors and creating small organizations in their localities that rely upon natural networks. But the question is, where to go from here. From my perspective it would be great if someone were to come up with an alternative plan for revising the constitution. There’s a widespread feeling in Japan that the constitution is in need of revision, and the poll figures show that. NHK did a poll in early April, which showed that 42 percent think the constitution needs to be revised, 19 percent say no, and 32 percent are undecided.


DM: I’ve got a different poll that Asahi did in April that says that 56 percent approved of constitutional revision, but there was a survey done by a group of activists in early May found that 77 percent were against changing Article 9, so you’ve got this profound discrepancy, haven’t you, where quite a lot of people it seems want to change the constitution, but they don’t know or understand or perhaps aren’t aware of the implications.


JJ: Even the NHK poll, when they asked “Is it necessary to revise Article 9?”, only 24 percent answered yes, 39 percent said no, and 28 percent were undecided. The poll that found 77 percent against changing Article 9 is a bit suspect, since they stood outside of train stations asking people to put stickers on a board reflecting their view, and people who supported changing Article 9 would avoid a public display like that, I would think, so it lacks the weight of a telephone poll, but the polls have been fairly consistent over the last year, showing that many think the constitution needs to be changed (I think to a large extent they think the Self Defense Force needs to be incorporated into the constitution), but that the principles of Article 9 should be left untouched. It would be great if someone were to come up with an effective counter-proposal that galvanized people around those ideas. There are counter-proposals out there, but they haven’t crystallized support.


The Constitution and the Reorganization of the Japanese State


GM: This being the 60th year of both the constitution and the Fundamental Law of Education, I perceive the process under way today as involving the constitution, the Fundamental Law on Education, and the general security arrangement, so the Japanese state is in a process of reorganization without parallel in the whole postwar period. It is clear that the pressure is on to get the Fundamental Law of Education done first in the current session of the Diet, and then to proceed to the constitution. Koizumi has talked very clearly about revising the state in a way comparable to the formation of the Meiji state and the occupation reforms, so this is the third wave of fundamental reform in modern Japan. Even though he’s supposedly a conservative, he’s the most radical politician in postwar Japan. Now we’ve had Kempo and Ampo, we’ve had the constitution and the security treaty, but in fact the key constitutional document has been Ampo, the security treaty; whenever there has been a conflict priority has been given to the security treaty. So the crucial process of revision that’s underway now concerns the security arrangements, and they’re the ones that don’t go before the Diet. There’s no referendum, they don’t go before anything. And they’re almost settled. Japan is slated to become the Great Britain of East Asia, irrespective of whatever may or may not be done to the constitution.


I look at the constitution as having these qualities: First, plainly, it’s imposed on a defeated enemy country by its conqueror. Secondly, it’s unrevised after 60 years. Thirdly, it’s democratic because of its inclusion of the principles of popular sovereignty, human rights, and division of powers. Fourthly, and very crucially, it’s imperial. When MacArthur wrote that directive in February 1946, the number one requirement was that the emperor would be at the head of the state. So the No 1 “oshitsuke,” or American imposition, was the emperor. The emperor was an absolute requirement for the United States, for reasons we might discuss later, but because of that, in turn, (fifth if you like) Article 9 was necessary. Otherwise in Asian countries, and Australia, no one would have accepted a peace treaty that installed the commander in chief of the old Japanese army as its head of state. It’s as absurd as if, in 2003, the United States having overthrown Saddam Hussein, had insisted that he be the central figure in the new state. Articles 1 through 8 [establishing the emperor’s role under the constitution] required Article 9, and the relationship between the two is fundamental. Sixth, the constitution was divisive, it’s not often thought of in this way, but it severed Okinawa from Japan. Okinawa was the “war state,” with the rest of Japan as the “peace state.”


So what is the LDP proposal now for revision? First of all, a fundamental reworking of the preamble. The emperor system is to be elevated from the main text of the constitution into the preamble, therefore made sacrosanct, so it will be extremely difficult to address the emperor question thereafter. “Love of nation” is to be installed in the preamble. But two substantial revisions in the body of the constitution around which the LDP is concentrating are Article 9, to normalize the Self Defense Forces as a Japanese army, and Article 20, subsection 3 [which requires the state to refrain from religious activity], to legitimize Yasukuni. Finally, they propose the simplification of future revisions by lowering the requirement of a two-thirds majority of the Diet to one-half.


Yasukuni and the US-Japan Relationship


What does this mean? What is Japan saying to the world, after sixty years? They’re saying, we want to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States. That’s the crucial demand of the LDP. And secondly, to hell with Asia, we want to continue with Yasukuni and therefore we’re going to legitimize it under the constitution because, as you all know, the courts have been saying it’s unconstitutional, so we overcome that by revising the constitution. And thirdly, we’ll proceed with more radical constitutional revision after these two things — satisfying America and saying to hell with Asia — are done. However, it’s very difficult to take this before the Japanese people and say, this is our agenda. So it’s been softened by the inclusion of a number of other clauses about freedom of information and environmental rights, which are the sop to Japanese public opinion, to say there’s an idealistic dimension. Actually, the idealistic dimension was much stronger in the early drafts prepared by the Yomiuri shimbun, but as the focus is reduced to the really crucial issues, the issues that Washington is pushing and the issues that are demanded because of the collapse in relations with Asia, we get the focus on these two things.


Former prime minister Nakasone Yasuhiro, who for decades has led the push for revising the constitution, is of course the most antagonistic to this approach, because it deletes all of his pet agenda of extolling in the preamble the glories of the Japanese nation and the sacred tradition and so on, but he now takes the position that once we get these revisions through we can turn our attention to his agenda down the track.


What are the prospects? It seems to me that the Yomiuri has been quite unique in Western industrial democracies. The world’s largest newspaper has been conducting a crusade for the last 15 years to revise the constitution, never allowing an alternative, or a critical, or a hostile voice to appear in its pages. In the past two years, the Yomiuri said two things. One, in May 2004, it said “however, a few extremists still insist on keeping the current constitution intact,” so the Yomiuri is furious that its campaign has not pushed people in the direction that it wanted, and there are people who are “extremists” for wanting to maintain the constitution as it is. But at the same time, in 2005, the Yomiuri said, we’ve got 43.6 percent for revision of Article 9, 46 percent against it, and it concluded that there is probably not enough political energy and will to carry the revision process through.


A couple of observations. One is, taking the structure of the state as a whole, it seems to me that Koizumi is trying to fuse neoliberalism and neonationalism, and that one requires the other. In other words, as you dissolve society, as you dissolve all the intermediate organizations that people depend on, then you need to reinforce the state, you need patriotism, you need nationalism. But it’s not genuine nationalism or patriotism, since the key thrust of all of this is to turn Japan into what Gotoda Masaharu calls a “zokkoku,” a vassal state. The more Koizumi structurally subordinates Japan to the United States, the more it’s necessary for him to stand up and say, We Japanese are glorious and wonderful, and we go to Yasukuni. Yasukuni is required by the vassal-state status that he’s embracing for Japan.


Constitutional Alternatives


What are the alternatives? In the book I jointly wrote with Glenn Hook in 2001, when the debate was at a fairly early stage, we featured the proposals of what we described as the Iwanami group, or the Sekai group (Wada Haruki, Koseki Shoichi, and others). They came out last year with a restatement of their position, which calls for adopting a Fundamental Law of Peace. It seems that the Social Democratic Party came out in February with a similar proposal — they’re not using the term Fundamental Law of Peace, but in fact their solution to the Article 9 and SDF problem is to divide the SDF into separate forces, for international cooperation, for defense of the national territory, and for emergency relief internationally and domestically. And that seems to me to be a sensible and politically realistic solution. It recognizes that the dilemma with the Article 9 group, the idea of goken, or defending the constitution, allows the initiative to pass to the other side, the side pushing for change, and to be presented as conservatives at a time when people are ready for some kind of change. That’s a weak position to be in.


DM: Just to play devil’s advocate here, when Watanabe Tsuneo, editor-in-chief of the Yomiuri, gave a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club a few months ago, it was quite interesting. He’s quite old now, so he was very frank, and basically he said he would not support Abe Shinzo for leader of the LDP, because of his visits to Yasukuni, and that he favored Fukuda Yasuo, because Fukuda was older, more dedicated to international diplomacy, has a better head on his shoulders, and is less of a firebrand. Two things struck me about this. First is the amount of power that this man has. Effectively he controls the editorial policy of a newspaper with 14 million readers, right? For 15 years, he’s pushed the constitution revision line. But at the same time, it seemed to represent a fracture at some level of, to use a very old phrase, the ruling class. There are disputes at the top about what exactly Japan should do, as you always have when a country embarks on the kind of changes that Gavan has summed up. Some people are afraid of the consequences, and it seems that one of those people is Watanabe.


The other semi-significant thing that has happened lately is, in the States, a senior member of the House, international relations committee chair Henry Hyde, wrote to the speaker of the House, demanding that if Koizumi was to address a joint session of Congress he should first make clear that he would never again go to Yasukuni.


GM: So the issue is finally on the table. It’s very late, with Koizumi only having a couple of more months to go, but of course Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni are an affront to the United States, even more than they are to China or South Korea, because neither China nor South Korea was there when the San Francisco Treaty was signed, but the United States was there.


DM: Is there a possibility that America is worried about the economic consequences of this dispute between Japan and China? When Abe was at the club last year, a lot of the questions were directed toward Yasukuni and whether he would continue going or not. Abe constantly separated the political and the economic, as Koizumi does. He said, our economic relationship with China is sacrosanct, but this is a political issue and it’s separate. And you have to say, that, so far, things seem to bear that out. There’s a lot of hot air, there’s potential for trouble down the road, but a JETRO survey earlier this year showed that trade between China and Japan is onward and upward, barely a blip, despite the threats of a boycott. But the question for me is, are we beginning to see some movement around Yasukuni at the top of Japanese ruling circles and also in America, with members of the administration over there worried that this thing might get out of hand.


JJ: And the Keizai Doyukai, the Kansai-based business association, just last week appealed to Koizumi to stop going to Yasukuni, so you’re getting the economic establishment weighing in as well, saying that it’s time to stop that foolishness. But I think Gavan’s right that it’s very difficult to stop that foolishness because it goes hand in hand with the vassal state relationship with the US, which has become so self-evident in the last year with the realignment of US bases and the integration of the command structures of the SDF and the US forces, and this absurd bill that the US is presenting to the Japanese to pay for the repositioning of the Marines from Okinawa to Guam, which is very hard to swallow, hard even for the LDP to swallow, but much harder for the general public to swallow. Why should Japan pay $7 billion to move US troops to Guam? To build their schools and golf courses on Guam?


Getting back to the constitution, we have footage in the film of Koizumi addressing the Diet in October 2001, where he says, “To exercise the right of collective self defense, we’d have to revise the constitution, but the time is not right to do so. Instead, we are using all our wits to explore the gaps between the Preamble to the constitution and Article 9” to find a way to support the United States in their war on terror. What he did was to proceed to find a way, perhaps by crow barring those gaps a bit wider than they had been, to do exactly what he wanted to do. He’s managed to accomplish many of the things that were the goals for revising the constitution. In a sense it’s taken the wind out of the sails of revision. Likewise, the focus on the Fundamental Law of Education and the reorganization of the US bases are two other ways of accomplishing the same thing. Revising the constitution is no longer on the agenda for the remainder of Koizumi’s term (though they’re moving ahead with drafting the National Referendum Law). Once again, there’s the sense that they can do what they want without revising the constitution, so why bother.


GM: Or by revising the constitution through interpretation, kaishakukaiken. I think Koizumi has shown that it’s possible to do almost anything by saying, “Well, we interpret it to mean that we can do it.” But at the same time, the LDP has committed itself to try to get revision, so it’s in a contradictory position. Yasuoka Okiharu, the man within the LDP responsible for the constitution, has said, “If you call a spade a spade (my translation for sotchoku yomeba, or reading it straight), the SDF are in violation of the constitution.” I think there’s no other Western democracy where the constituti

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