On Monday, Japan’s Diet enacted a law establishing procedures for national referenda on amendments to the country’s constitution. On Tuesday, China publicly complained. This is not really surprising: for many Asians, Japan’s constitutional arrangements have long been a matter of international concern.
Japan’s “peace constitution” was imposed in 1946 by General Douglas MacArthur, the so-called “second emperor.” In article nine of that document the Japanese people “forever” renounced both “war” and “the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” They also promised “never” to maintain “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.”
But article nine has not been enforced for decades. Tokyo now maintains approximately 240,000 soldiers, sailors, and pilots supported by the world’s fifth-largest military budget. Article nine today is narrowly interpreted as a ban on participation in “collective self-defense,” but even that prohibition has been eroded. Japan sent minesweepers to the Persian Gulf in 1991, an Aegis destroyer to the Indian Ocean in 2002 to support U.S. operations, and, most notably, a contingent of troops to Iraq in 2004. The Iraq deployment was the first time Japan has sent ground troops to a war zone since the end of World War II. And, unlike Japan’s 1992 mission in Cambodia and later peacekeeping efforts, the soldiers sent to Iraq operated outside a UN framework.
Other Asians are uncomfortable with Japanese participation in such military efforts. As Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, famously said, permitting the Japanese to carry arms abroad is like “giving liqueur chocolates to a reformed alcoholic.” The new referendum law caused “high concern and misgivings among the people of Asia who suffered Japanese invasion and enslavement,” according to a statement released by Beijing’s official Xinhua news agency. “People have begun to doubt whether Japan will continue its path of peaceful development.”
Paradoxically, however, Tokyo’s attempt formally to legalize its defensive forces is a necessary step in ensuring that peaceful development. Article nine makes it extremely difficult for the Japanese to have honest debates among themselves about their history. The constitution stigmatizes the past and, as one of the country’s most prominent journalists said to me recently, prevents Japan from becoming “a normal country.”
East Asians may never feel fully comfortable with a rearmed Japan, but their unease is heightened by Tokyo’s openly violating the country’s constitution. The way to end, finally, the long aftermath of World War II in Asia is for the Japanese to amend their constitution—and subsequently to adhere to it.