Japan’s Constitutional Reinterpretation: A Tug of War between Strategy and Memory

"For Abe to prevail, he must present a clearer case to the Japanese public about the strategic importance of the right to collective self-defense."

On July 1, 2014, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet engaged in a dramatic constitutional reinterpretation. Traditionally, Japan’s constitution had been read as imposing pacifism on the country: Japan could not engage in military force except in absolute self-defense. But under Abe’s new reading, the constitution would grant Japan the right to engage in collective self-defense—in other words, to come to the aid of allied forces under attack even if Japan itself is not targeted.

This update may seem minor when set alongside the robust military campaigns launched by other nations like the United States. But for Japan, Abe’s reinterpretation represents a significant shift away from the island-nation’s postwar pacifism—a shift that will have important and largely beneficial consequences for the U.S.-Japanese alliance. By the end of the year, the two states will release revised Guidelines for Defense Cooperation, which will build in part on Prime Minister Abe’s constitutional reinterpretation and update the framework that governs the U.S.-Japanese alliance in times of both peace and war.

But while the United States has applauded his reinterpretation for strategic reasons, Abe has faced persistent opposition at home. For his domestic critics, the constitution enshrines a pacifist principle forged in the blistering fires of World War II. It should not be tossed aside lightly, and the Abe administration has failed to explain how its reinterpretation accords with the lessons of history.

In order to succeed, Abe will be forced to navigate between strategic and historical currents that often tug in opposite directions. Reconciling these competing forces is possible, but only if the Abe administration can convey to a skeptical public that collective self-defense aligns with Japan’s pacifist principles, rather than its militaristic past. For the most part, this debate will unfold domestically, but the United States should intervene on the margins by clarifying the strategic benefits of the reinterpretation for the alliance and by urging the Abe administration to shy away from historically revisionist rationales.

A Constitution That Changes with the Times

As World War II ended, the United States occupied Japan and set about deconstructing its militaristic government. As part of this demolition effort, Washington revamped Japan’s legal system and sought to ensure that Tokyo could never again lawfully threaten regional peace.

The result was Article 9 of the newly minted Japanese Constitution. The first clause announced that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” To serve this aim, the second clause continued, “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

Yet almost as soon as it was adopted, Article 9 came under severe strain. Many understood the clause to prohibit the creation of any military force whatsoever. But two years after the new constitution was ratified, Japan faced a security crisis. The Chinese Communist Party had taken control of the Chinese mainland, and faced with a resurgent communist threat in Asia, the United States was asking Japan to help ensure regional security. For the remainder of the Cold War, Washington would continue to pressure its ally to rearm and play the role of security provider.

This pressure influenced how Japan has interpreted Article 9. For instance, once the Korean War broke out, the United States relocated forces from Japan to the Korean Peninsula, robbing the island nation of its principal shield against potential attackers. In response, Japan organized a robust, national police force that could defend the country in a time of need. Within a few years, the Diet reorganized these defense capacities and created the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF)—a military in all but name. Faced with a lurking constitutional issue, the Japanese Cabinet squared the existence of the JSDF with Article 9 in late December 1954 by arguing that “[t]he Constitution did not deny the self-defense right; Japan renounced war, but did not renounce the right to struggle in order to defend itself.”

Two important lessons emerge from this episode. First, Tokyo justified its rearmament by emphasizing mission over capability. In other words, the JSDF looked like a conventional military in many respects, but—crucially—it would be used only for the narrow purpose of self-defense. Second, this limited mission would shape the division of labor in the U.S.-Japanese alliance. As one scholar has put it, the JSDF’s focus ensured that “the United States would provide offensive capability and the SDF would concentrate on the less likely and smaller scale impact of any spillover effects from regional conflicts.”

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