Wednesday, Jul 26, 2017, 8:44 PM CST – China


Japan’s Constitutional Reinterpretation


Japan recently passed legislation that reinterprets its pacifist constitution. NewsChina examines what this reveals about the tense tug-of-war that is Sino-Japanese relations

Protesters call upon Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to protect the country’s pacifist constitution, Tokyo, October 2, 2015

Enjoying the cherry blossoms in Japan became very popular among Chinese tourists last year. For the 2016 blossom-watching season, Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the Komeito party in Japan’s ruling coalition, hopes to host a special guest. On October 15, 2015, he invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to see the cherry blossoms in Tokyo next spring. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has confirmed that Yamaguchi also delivered a letter from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Xi, conveying Abe’s wish to hold a bilateral meeting with him on the sidelines of an upcoming international conference. The next possible occasion would be the APEC Summit in mid-November.

If the two leaders ultimately meet, the chances are that cherry blossoms will not be the main topic of discussion. The subject Chinese and Japanese leaders will most likely dig into is national security. This issue casts a long shadow on their views on history and present states of mind. On September 19, the Japanese Diet approved a highly controversial package of security bills that reinterpret the country’s postwar pacifist constitution to allow Japan to take action not only when the country itself is under attack, but also when someone attacks its allies, notably the US.

While Japan justified the shift by stressing current security challenges, China noted that Japan’s military and security actions “have been closely watched” by all “due to historical reasons.” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei described the legislation as “an unprecedented move taken by postwar Japan in the military and security fields,” and questioned “whether Japan is going to drop its exclusive defense policy and deviate from the path of peaceful development it has followed since World War II.” The two countries are also in a row over UNESCO’s decision to add Chinese documents about the Rape of Nanking, also known as the Nanjing Massacre, to its Memory of the World Register.

On October 18, Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to tour a US aircraft carrier, a visit that was regarded as a symbol of the US-Japan security alliance that is to be further reinforced by Japan’s new security legislation.

In the meantime, a trilateral meeting of Chinese, Japanese and South Korean leaders is scheduled to be held in Seoul in early November, after a three-and-a-half-year suspension. In mid-October, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi met with Abe in Tokyo and also held a high-level political dialog with Shotaro Yachi, Secretary General of Japan’s National Security Secretariat, the second such dialog in three months. They all agreed to keep up the momentum of improved relations that started early this year, and to try to make the upcoming trilateral summit a success. Individual exchanges between China and Japan, either through tourism or think tanks, are on the upswing as well. With this sociopolitical backdrop, analysts do not see war in China and Japan’s future, but whether or not the newly passed security legislation stunts this fragile relationship’s growth remains to be seen.

Pacifist History

The current Japanese constitution was drafted by authorities from the General Headquarters of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in February 1946, promulgated after some adjustments by the Japanese Diet in November of that year and put into effect on May 3, 1947. Article 9 enshrines the permanent renunciation of war as a nation’s sovereign right, along with the threat of using force as a means of settling international disputes.

Debate over the article’s interpretation in terms of Japan’s self-defense rights has persisted since the law’s inception. There were lawsuits in Japan involving the constitutionality of the existence of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) as well as the US’s military bases in Japan. The mainstream academic view, and the stance of successive Japanese governments, has been that Japan can exercise the right to individual self-defense, or fighting back against wrongful armed attacks on the country itself, but is barred from performing what the UN Charter terms “collective self-defense,” or helping its allies retaliate against armed attacks.

This is the constitutional basis for what is known as Japan’s exclusively defense-oriented policy. Before the new package of security bills was proposed, Japan’s Cabinet Legislation Bureau (CLB), the highly respected government body that interprets the constitutionality of Japanese laws, had, since the 1960s, constantly resisted pressure from political conservatives to change this interpretation, according to a September report published by the US’s Law Library of Congress. In 1954, when a law was passed to reorganize what was then called the National Police Reserve into what is now known as the SDF, Japan’s upper house passed a resolution to ban dispatching the SDF overseas. In 1968, the Three Non-Nuclear Principles that prohibited the manufacturing, possession or introduction of nuclear weapons into Japanese territory were adopted by the Japanese government and ratified by the Diet in 1971. In 1976, by expanding the restrictions on exports of weapons and military technologies, the Japanese government imposed a de facto ban on such exports.

Salami Slicing

Things started to shift in the early 1990s. At that time, the Japanese government began to “salami slice” those restrictions, as some analysts have put it. Instead of hacking down the entire ban, it pushed its limits bit by bit. Its US$13 billion contribution to the US-led coalition during the Gulf War was dismissed as “checkbook diplomacy” and was omitted from Kuwait’s official expression of thanks after the war. Taking this as a diplomatic humiliation, Japan passed a law in 1992 to enable it to join humanitarian activities in noncombat areas of UN peacekeeping operations (PKO). As Abe said in his speech to the US Congress this past April, since the enactment of the PKO law, 50, 000 SDF personnel have been sent on peacekeeping missions in a number of countries, including Cambodia, Mozambique and South Sudan. Restrictions on the use of weapons and the export of military equipment and technologies, as well as limits on the geographical areas in which Japan can support US military operations, were all relaxed further in the years following the PKO law’s ratification through amendments and temporary laws. These were passed in response to security issues on the Korean peninsula and to US pressure for more Japanese contributions to US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chinese analysts generally believe these adjustments also reflect a change in the Japanese political landscape that began in the late 1980s. The Japan Socialist Party, who favored the pacifist constitution, was greatly undermined by Japan’s rise to world economic power status, the ensuing stagnation and the end of the Cold War. For example, during his tenure as Japanese prime minister from 1982 to 1987, the hawkish Yasuhiro Nakasone pursued the revision of Article 9, which failed. Most adjustments that relaxed the restrictions, particularly the passage of the three war-contingency laws, took place between 2001 and 2006 when the nationalist Junichiro Koizumi was in office. In 2005, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) published its first proposal for a constitutional amendment, replacing the second paragraph in Article 9, which prohibits maintaining “land, sea and air forces” and the right of belligerence. The first law detailing the procedure for a national referendum for constitutional amendment was enacted in 2007 during Abe’s first term as prime minister. Then, when the LDP lost the upper house at the end of 2007, revising Article 9 basically stayed off the government’s core agenda until the end of 2012, when the Abe-led LDP returned to power.

China Concern

China clearly carried a lot of weight in Japan’s recent security legislation. In the cabinet decision submitted to the Diet in May, a “shift in the global power balance” was given as the first reason behind the legislation. At a Diet hearing on the security bills in July, Abe and his defense minister directly named China as a threat, a move that shocked Japanese media. Revisions to the US-Japan defense guidelines that strengthen their security alliance, the first such changes since 1997, were finalized even before the bills were submitted to the Diet. Both the US and Japanese foreign and defense secretaries highlighted the importance of these new guidelines in the rebalancing of the Asia-Pacific region.

Chinese analysts paid particular attention to two changes in the new US-Japan defense guidelines that were highlighted in a US Department of Defense press release. One is the now “seamless” cooperation between the US and Japanese militaries. Besides humanitarian and disaster relief, the two sides will work together on surveillance, reconnaissance, and defense against missile, space and cyber attacks.

The other is that US-Japanese cooperation will go beyond the geographical range set by previous laws and move into the global arena. Besides, new conditions have been set for the use of force in SDF’s global operation, which is now allowed in “situations where an armed attack against a foreign country results in threatening Japan’s survival,” as explained by Japan’s defense white paper released in July, which also singled out China as a threat. Although Diet approval is required for these actions, ex-post facto approval is allowed in some cases. This has caused widespread concern in and outside of Japan that the Diet would not have the ability to constrain government power. In an article for the Chinese edition of NewsChina, Peking University researcher Hu Bo concluded that the conditions necessary to justify a use of force have faded from the clear concept of an armed attack on Japanese territory to the vague notion of a “threat.” And, he added, a small circle in the cabinet will ultimately be the people who decide how Japan will judge and respond to potential threats.

Some Japanese cabinet members’ remarks and actions have fueled such concerns. Taro Aso, Japan’s deputy prime minister and minister of finance, suggested in a July 2013 speech in Tokyo that Japan could learn from Nazi Germany in regards to its technique of changing the Weimar Constitution quietly, without being noticed by the public. (He later retracted these remarks.) In his speech on the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing on August 6, Abe did not mention Japan’s long-standing Non-Nuclear Principles, though he confirmed the commitment later after domestic criticism.

According to the Study on Japan’s Nuclear Materials released on October 9 by the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association and the China Institute of Nuclear Information and Economics, Japan holds enough plutonium to make 1,350 nuclear warheads, as well as 1.2 to 1.4 tons of highly enriched uranium, which is far more than what Japan would need to produce nuclear energy. Chinese and international analysts have thought that Japan is a “threshold” nuclear state for years, one that is technically ready to make nuclear weapons but chooses not to do so for political reasons. This has been confirmed by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Future Tense

Despite all this, Chinese and international analysts do not think that Japan is on a militaristic path towards war with China. They are generally cautiously optimistic about the short- and mid-term future.

Professor Tang Chongnan, honorary president of the Sino-Japanese History Association, believes pressure from the US and the Japanese public, China’s own increased military capabilities and a basically stable Sino-US relationship would be strong enough to prevent the Japanese government from going too far. As he told NewsChina, “no nuclear weapons” is the bottom line of the US’s policy towards its alliance with Japan. In his September 28 lecture in Beijing, Professor Liu Jiangyong, vice dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University, said the US-Japan security alliance would collapse if Japan were to make nuclear weapons.

Cultural exchanges between the two countries are increasingly important. Many young Japanese people have joined the protests against the legislation. Japanese media and legal scholars are increasingly skeptical about the legitimacy of the legislation. For example, it recently came to the attention of the press that the CLB did not keep records of its internal discussions that led to Abe’s amendment, making it “almost impossible to examine the process of the constitutional reinterpretation,” according to a Japan Times editorial. Liu noted that “this is the best time to develop a better understanding between Chinese and Japanese people,” adding that sports events, particularly the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan, would provide good opportunities.

A messages from the Chinese government to the Japanese public would probably help as well. In his speech at the first National Memorial Day for Nanjing Massacre Victims on December 13, 2014, Xi stated that the purpose of the ceremony was to “recall that every good-hearted person yearns and holds a firm stance of peace, but does not try to prolong hatred,” and “[we] should not bear hatred against an entire nation just because a small minority of militarists launched aggressive wars.” Tang Chongnan said some Japanese officials told him they were deeply touched by this expression of goodwill.

China’s official response to the passage of the security legislation was perceived as restrained. High-level contact intensified instead of fizzling out, as it used to when contentious events occurred. This is probably because of the urgent need to avoid military conflicts, and China’s wariness of giving the Japanese government further pretext to describe China as a threat. In addition, exactly how Japan’s security laws will be implemented remains to be seen. J. Stapleton Roy, former US ambassador to China and founding director emeritus of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, told NewsChina that his impression from the frequent meetings he has attended recently was that Chinese and Japanese officials expressed confidence that the current progression towards improved and stabilized relations will continue. He does not think the shift in legislation will change that trend.

New proposals for easing regional tension have recently gained more support. The general consensus at an October 19 forum sponsored by Peking University was that the Asia-Pacific region needs its own security architecture, something that could perhaps be achieved by elevating existing platforms, such as the East Asia Regional Forum.

Chinese analysts believe Abe will push forward the revision of Article 9 if the LDP or its coalition secures a majority in the upper house in the 2016 elections. The idea of revising Article 9 is also supported by some Japanese people who oppose Abe’s methods. It seems that the tug-of-war between tensions and improvement will continue for some time, but fortunately, war remains unlikely. 


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