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KOIZUMI ROCKS THE BOAT: Why Tinkering With The Constitution's "Peace" Clause Could Torpedo Japan's Prime Minister


Thursday, Aug. 16, 2001

Junichiro Koizumi has become post-war Japan's most popular Prime Minister ever by promising to make waves. But as he tries to chart a reform program to rescue Japan's sputtering economy, he is running into rough waters in foreign policy. If he persists in supporting efforts to amend the "peace" clause in Japan's constitution, he could find himself in even deeper trouble.

Koizumi's Phenomenal Popularity

Until this week, Koizumi had been blowing through the doldrums of Japanese politics like a tsunami. In April, he won a hard-fought race to become the leader of Japan's governing Liberal Democratic Party, besting several better-known rivals. He pledged to tackle the difficult economic restructuring that his predecessors had delayed or avoided during a decade of stagnation. And he offered openness and accountability in a political culture long dominated by smoke-filled rooms and shadowy kingmakers.

Soon after replacing a prime minister with single-digit approval ratings, Koizumi found himself enjoying stratospheric popularity–as high as 90% in some polls. With his wavy mane of silver-speckled hair, he even became a pop culture icon, as schoolgirls snapped up his campaign posters to wallpaper their bedrooms.

On July 29, Koizumi led the LDP to victory in elections for the upper house of Japan's legislature. The decks were clear for a major push to reform the economy and liberalize Japan's institutions. But Koizumi's foreign policy troubles are beginning to roil the waters.

A Visit to the Controversial Yasukuni Shrine

A reformer on domestic matters, Koizumi has nevertheless taken a conservative line on foreign policy — as was evidenced by his campaign promise to pay a visit to Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II.

Conservatives regard Yasukuni as an unofficial national cemetery, honoring the soldiers who died defending Japan. To them, it is no more objectionable for a Japanese prime minister to visit Yasukuni than for an American president to honor the war dead at Arlington.

But to many Japanese, and many countries in Asia, Yasukuni symbolizes Japan's failure to acknowledge its aggression in World War II. Like Bitburg, the German military cemetery visited by President Reagan in 1985, Yasukuni honors its share of villains as well as victims.

Along with the millions of rank-and-file soldiers honored at the shrine are Japan's "Class A" war criminals, executed by the Allies for plotting a brutal wave of conquest across Asia and the Pacific. Conspicuously absent from Yasukuni are the millions of non-Japanese who died as a result.

The LDP, despite its name, is a conservative party–with a view of history that tends to justify, or at least relativize, Japan's conduct in the war. But its leaders have been wary of paying official visits to Yasukuni, knowing that to do so would ignite a firestorm of protest among Japan's neighbors. Koizumi's promise to visit put his much-admired directness on a collision course with diplomatic reality.

In recent weeks, the prime minister began to look for a way to limit the fallout without reneging on his campaign promise. After aides hinted that the visit might be cancelled or delayed, Koizumi surprised everyone with a hastily arranged appearance at the shrine on August 13. By avoiding the highly symbolic date of the surrender, August 15, Koizumi evidently hoped to limit the affront to neighboring countries. And his remarks at the shrine were full of reassurances about Japan's commitment never to go to war again.

Unfortunately for Koizumi, the compromise looked more dodgy than artful. Japan's neighbors joined in a chorus of disapproval. China voiced its "fierce anger and dissatisfaction" with the visit, threatening a downturn in relations. In South Korea, twenty gangsters felt strongly enough to take matters into their own hands–lopping off their pinkies in protest. At the same time, ironically, some on the Japanese right complained that Koizumi had wilted in the face of foreign pressure.

A Difficult Bid to Revise the Constitution's "Peace" Clause

Despite his astronomical popularity, Koizumi has learned from the Yasukuni controversy just how difficult it is to impose his will on established practices–even on a purely symbolic issue. He will find it even harder to make changes that actually affect lives, like cutting wasteful public spending or deregulating coddled industries. And he will probably find it impossible to achieve another of his major goals: revising Article 9 of Japan's post-war constitution.

Article 9 — a product of the post-war occupation — states 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." In order to ensure this, Article 9 stipulates that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained."

Drafted by General Douglas MacArthur's staff on a week's notice, the constitution was awkwardly translated into Japanese and adopted under strong American pressure. Yet for a country famed for banning foreign skis because they allegedly would not work on local snow, Japan has shown surprising loyalty to its "foreign-made" constitution. In 44 years it has yet to be amended.

The constitution's emphasis on individual rights and pacifism has been a bulwark against a slide back into Japan's militarist past. But at the same time, Article 9 long ago ceased to describe reality. As a Cold War ally of the U.S., Japan quietly began to rebuild its military, now described as "self-defense" forces. Today Japan's armed forces, though arguably unconstitutional, are among the world's most formidable.

To many Japanese, not just conservatives, this situation is absurd. They favor revision of Article 9 to allow maintenance of military forces, wars of self-defense and collective security treaties — in short, to legalize the current practice. Some would go further–arguing that Japan needs to behave like a "normal" country of great wealth and influence, by participating in overseas peacekeeping missions and seeking a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

But others fear that any revised language, if interpreted in the same loose tradition that has marked interpretation of the current Article 9, could remove any constitutional restraint on a renewal of Japanese militarism. Defense of the constitution is a cause that unifies the fractured Japanese left wing like no other.

Why Koizumi Should Avoid a Constitutional Debate

Amending the constitution would require a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Diet, and approval by a majority of voters in a referendum. Moreover, for the amendment to succeed, Koizumi would not only need to muster large majorities in favor of revising Article 9, he would also need to build a consensus about what to replace it with.

Forging the new language would provoke a domestic debate about Japan's wartime conduct unlike anything seen in the last fifty years. And by stirring up the militarist past, Koizumi would face a typhoon of protest from anxious neighbors–one that would make the Yasukuni controversy seem like a tempest in a teapot.

If Koizumi found it difficult to weather the storm on Yasukuni, he certainly won't be able to stay the course on constitutional revision. For the sake of his domestic reform program, he would be well advised to steer clear of those treacherous waters.

Dean G. Falvy, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, is an attorney focusing on corporate and international law. He has taught legal writing at Seattle University School of Law.

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