Abe's alarming assault on Japan's democracy

Shinzo Abe's attempt to re-interpret Japan's pacifist constitution is not only inflaming regional tensions, it's also undermining his country’s constitutional democracy.

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution is one of the most unique in the world. It states that Japanese people “forever” relinquish war as a sovereign right and renounce the threat or use of force as a means of setting international disputes.

The current pacifist constitution was imposed on a defeated people by the American occupying forces after World War Two. Historians argue that article 9 is a direct translation from the English text. For a foreign imposed constitution cobbled together in the ruins of Japan, article 9 has been incredibly popular among the Japanese people.

For much of the post-war period, the Japanese Socialist Party, the main opposition party, regarded it as an article of faith. The party disintegrated after it abandoned this key electoral platform in the 1995 election.

The latest opinion poll in the liberal-left Asahi Shimbun newspaper found 63 per cent of people oppose the move to amend the pacifist constitution. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has also shortlisted “Japanese people who conserve Article 9” for its peace prize.

But the popular article has been under assault from the conservative Japanese government since the 1950s and current nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is making a renewed push to ‘reinterpret” it, making it easier for Japan to send forces abroad to fight alongside allies.  

For Abe, the push to reinterpret the constitutional restriction on its military force is really the second best choice. Ideally, he would like to amend the pacifist constitution and throw off the American yoke on his country. But it is not really feasible given the legal hurdles he needs to jump through: two-thirds approval in both houses of Diet -- the Japanese parliament -- and a referendum.  

Abe’s move carries significant risk and poses a threat not only to Japan’s democratic system of government, but also the country’s standing in the region and its security.

The Japanese people’s steadfast defence of the pacifist constitution is the best evidence of the country’s commitment to pacifism. And this is especially important at a time when the conservative government under Abe is trying to whitewash Japan’s shameful war crimes against its Asian neighbours during World War Two (The latent danger in Abe's amnesiaDecember 30, 2013).

Prime Minister Abe’s decision last year to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honours convicted war criminals alongside millions of war dead, has sent the relationship between Japan and China into a deep freeze. Tokyo is also fighting a damaging publicity war with South Korea over the so-called "comfort women", who were sexual slaves during the colonial occupation.

If Japan attempts to re-interpret its pacifist constitution at the time when its relationship with its important neighbours is at their lowest ebb, it will only further inflame the situation in the region. It will only serve to strengthen Beijing’s claim that Tokyo is trying to revive militarism.

More important still, Abe’s push to reinterpret the constitution in the face of popular resistance and legal obstacles is undermining Japan’s constitutional democracy.

On this point, the Japanese government has a chequered history. The second paragraph of article 9 actually forbids the country from maintaining war materials to wage war, but it has been undermined consistently by the government and its American ally who wants Japan to shoulder a bigger security role. The fact is, Japan has one of the largest and most modern fighting forces in Asia despite its pacifist constitution.

Many Japanese constitutional scholars and lawyers argue that the very existence of the so-called self-defence force is unconstitutional. Legal challenges in the past had been thwarted by the conservative Supreme Court of Japan, which refused to hear cases relating to the legality of self-defence forces.

The Japanese government wants to change the letter and spirit of article 9 without going through the proper constitutional channels. As the New York Times eloquently put it, "[Abe] should know that the Constitution’s primary function is to check government power. It is not something that can be altered at the whim of the government. Otherwise, there is no reason to bother having a constitution at all."

Japan’s conservative government has been consistently and intentionally undermining the country’s cherished pacifist constitution for the past seven decades. Abe’s push is a threat to Japan’ democracy and regional stability and the country is not ready to abandon its most important symbol of pacifism when historical wrongs have not been settled.

It would be really ironic for Abe if the Japanese people were to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year.