Nine Lives?: The Politics of Constitutional Reform in Japan


J. Patrick Boyd and Richard J. Samuels

Policy Studies, No. 19


Washington, D.C.: East-West Center

Publication Date: 2005
ISBN: 978-1-932728-36-1
Binding: paper
Pages: ix, 82
Free Download: PDF


Japan is a vibrant democracy, but its citizens have never been given, nor have they ever taken, full responsibility for authoring their own constitution—until now, that is. By the late 1990s, public opinion had shifted. A majority favor changing their constitution. And today both the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), are preparing drafts for its revision. Japan is in the midst of one of the most consequential tests of its democratic institutions.

Although the contemporary revision debate encompasses such weighty issues as the role of the emperor, description of Japanese national character, reorganization of local government, separation of powers, and basic rights of citizens, one passage in particular continues to cast a shadow over the entire enterprise: Article Nine, the famous “peace clause” renouncing the possession and use of force for settling international disputes. Long the primary target of revisionist fervor, Article Nine was at the center of the first serious revision debate in the 1950s and controversies arising from its application helped to ignite the contemporary revision movement after the Gulf War in 1991.

There are many reasons why revision proponents have sought to change Article Nine. For some it is an impediment to the realization of national autonomy. The postwar constitution was drafted under the U.S. occupation, and Article Nine, whatever its exact origins, was one of three nonnegotiable demands imposed on the Japanese by General Douglas MacArthur. It is thus no surprise that revisionists often qualify Article Nine with the adjective “U.S.-imposed.” For others the peace clause is an impediment to national muscularity. As we shall see, interpretations of the article’s sweeping language have placed constraints on Japan’s military and its ability to use force in foreign affairs. At times these constraints have complicated Japan’s relationship with its only alliance partner, the United States, as well as efforts to increase Japanese influence in the United Nations. Finally, some favor revision because they see Article Nine as an impediment to national honesty. Following major reinterpretations in the early 1950s, Article Nine has been endlessly parsed in ways both large and small as the domestic and international political landscapes have shifted. As a result, it may be argued, Japanese security policy no longer reflects a strict interpretation of the peace clause, and the constitution should thus be brought into line with reality.

These arguments are not new. Revision proponents have advanced various versions since the 1950s. This raises two important questions. First, why has Article Nine survived so long without amendment? Second, why has the Article Nine issue returned to the political agenda with such force in recent years? More specifically: why does the LDP finally seem to have congealed on the issue, and why has the major opposition party joined in calling for constitutional revision? To address these questions, we examine evidence from the two strongest revisionist movements in postwar Japanese history: the immediate postwar period (1947–64) and the post-Cold War period (1990–present). Based on these cases, we locate the primary source of Article Nine’s longevity in domestic politics. Specifically, Article Nine has found critical support from a diverse coalition driven by two very different motivations, pragmatism, and pacifism. Pragmatism refers to a particular set of beliefs used to calculate the postwar national interest in exceedingly practical (cost/benefit) terms. Applying these beliefs to the conditions facing Japan, pragmatists generated and maintained the postwar strategy of reliance on the United States to guarantee Japan’s security. Pacifism, by contrast, refers to adherence to the doctrine of nonviolence. This belief spread as part of an identity movement that redefined postwar Japan as a “peace nation” (heiwa kokka). The policy implications of this redefinition were exemplified in a preference for “unarmed neutrality.”

Although the relative strength of these two forces has varied over the years, each in its own right has been a formidable obstacle to significant change in Article Nine. Despite this long track record—and although revision is by no means a foregone conclusion—the tripartite political dynamic among pacifists, pragmatists, and those who sought to revise Article Nine has recently shifted in ways that make amendment far more likely than ever before. There has been a tremendous rise in revisionist sentiment in the political parties, the Diet, and the public. And, the pragmatist/pacifist coalition has been greatly weakened. We trace the rise of revisionism primarily to three factors: the failure of leftist parties to redefine themselves in a shifted political landscape; national and party-level institutional reforms that have strengthened the role of the prime minister within the LDP and in the policymaking process; and the leadership of the current prime minister, Koizumi Junichirô. In short, changes in partisanship, institutions, and leadership have been critical drivers behind the rise of revisionism over the last decade. International development since the early 1990s provided the revisionists with further opportunities to challenge the constitutional status quo. The rise of revisionism has enabled the Japanese government to undertake certain major policy changes as, for example, in the overseas dispatch of troops and in its Iraq policy, which is clearly a major turning point in Japan’s postwar security policy.

Despite the rise in revisionist sentiment, revision of Article Nine still faces serious challenges including the failure to reach consensus among conservatives and within the LDP on many central issues relating to Article Nine, the presence of Kômeitô in the coalition government, the politics of the main opposition party DPJ, and public opinion which is still deeply divided over collective self-defense. Consequently, the present Article Nine debate could have several possible outcomes: formalization of the informal status quo; major parties reaching an agreement on allowing a restricted form of collective self-defense; formal recognition of the right to collective self-defense without any restriction (least likely); and finally the possibility of complete failure. The study then briefly explores the likely implications of constitutional revision of the right to collective self-defense for Japanese politics, U.S.-Japan security relations, and for Japan’s regional relations. In conclusion the study argues that the debate over Article Nine has shifted in ways that makes major constitutional change possible although it neither sets the future course of change nor guarantees its occurrence. Whatever the outcome, the debate will be an important, and hopefully, affirmative experience in Japanese democracy.


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