from Asia Unbound and Will the Japanese Change Their Constitution?

Ayumi Teraoka: Owning Our Constitution, Our Future

August 22, 2016 8:00 am (EST)

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

This blog post is part of a series entitled Will the Japanese Change Their Constitution?, in which leading experts discuss the prospects for revising Japan’s postwar constitution. Ayumi Teraoka is research associate for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

When I ask my American friends what the most memorable world event from their childhood is, they tell me it is 9/11. For me, born and raised in Japan, it is something altogether different—Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang, North Korea in 2002. I was a six-grader when I saw Koizumi travel to Pyongyang, shake hands with Kim Jong-il, and bring home five Japanese who had been kidnapped from our coasts decades ago. I could not fully appreciate the meaning of this event until later, but I remember the excitement in Japan and felt that I had witnessed a historic moment.

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This excitement that history was being made in our time seemed amplified against the backdrop of the rather-depressing Japan that I lived in as a child. I spent my entire childhood and teenage years in what is often called as Japan’s “lost-decades,” the period after Japan’s economic bubble burst and the Cold War ended. Japan’s economy showed only signs of stagnation, and the rapidly changing security environment presented challenges that many “grown-ups” seemed to have a hard time solving. I often heard older Japanese talk with nostalgia about how they missed “Japan’s good old days” and how they felt sorry for us, younger Japanese, for not being able to experience those better days. Conversations were all about the past, and according to them, tomorrow would almost inevitably be worse than yesterday. This is why Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang was so memorable, as it showed that political action can change the way we think about our future and our expectations of diplomacy. Koizumi’s populist leadership sent a strong message that we, who live today, own our politics and that better days could be ahead for us, despite what many older Japanese say.

This is how the debate over our constitution, and the possibility of revision, resonates with me. Japan’s debate over our current constitution is a prime example of how shaky our sense of ownership is over our political future. Some, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, say it is crafted by the Americans and therefore illegitimate. Some think it is simply too old and therefore irrelevant. Others say it is this constitution that has been the foundation of our postwar Japanese identity and thus is something we should be proud of and protect. Some say it is valuable regardless of its origin since Article Nine has helped prevent Japan from being entrapped in unwanted conflicts abroad.

I believe all of these views are true to some extent. I am proud of the peace constitution that holds up the universal values of human rights and renounces war as means of solving disputes. I also like the Machiavellian way of viewing the constitution as a strategic shield for Japan to avoid sending troops to unwanted wars abroad. Yet I am also frustrated at how much time our Diet members spend trying to “make sense” of Article Nine, rather than employing a more straightforward approach to thinking about our security needs or simply rewriting it to get rid of the ambiguity.

I am not bothered by why people like or dislike our current constitution. Rather, I am uncomfortable with the fact that few Japanese, including me, feel that we fully own the constitution. It is as if there is always one or two asterisk(s) qualifying our views on our constitution (e.g. it was created by American amateurs; the cabinet can reinterpret the constitution whenever convenient; or most constitutional scholars think the Self Defense Force is unconstitutional.) Yet even if we think there is a problem with the current constitution, we leave it untouched while adding even more asterisks.

And because we, the Japanese people, have never been presented with an opportunity to express our will—either to amend or protect it as is—for almost seven decades, it remains unclear whether this constitution (including its asterisks) was maintained by the choice of contemporary Japanese. National elections have never focused on this question of amending the constitution, and until recently, our parliament has never secured the requisite two-thirds majority to even ask for national referendum on revision proposals. This perception that the constitution cannot be touched only limits people’s ability to think beyond what they take for granted. We, the Japanese, have not been able to think of an alternative future, one that we envision. Instead, we defer our problems today to others, including our powerful ally, the United States, or to next generations of Japanese who have yet to be born.

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I believe we can strengthen our democracy in Japan by claiming ownership for our constitution regardless of its deficiencies. It is only with this sense of ownership that our democracy can mature, and we can take the responsibility for what we have chosen. This is why I think the process of national referendum for constitutional revision is meaningful, as it makes clear that the Japanese people approve the constitution. It will be the people of Japan who own the constitution rather than a group of politicians or a loud vocal minority.

Of course, there is always the danger of deferring important decisions to a national referendum. Popular sentiment rather than professional policy expertise may not always lead to rational choices, as the UK referendum on Brexit may have shown. Voters may regret the decisions they have made. But that, in itself, is an important process for a democracy. And this is why it is critical that politicians discuss openly possible revised drafts or amendments for our constitution and explain them thoroughly to the Japanese people before offering choices in a national referendum.

Japan faces a series of difficult challenges in the years ahead—aging population, slow economic growth, North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear arsenal, and an increasingly assertive China. The world too faces complex security challenges ranging from the return of great power competition to newer threats like terrorism and pandemics. As our constitution determines the range of decisions we can make to deal with those issues, it is time we debate what future we might envision under what type of constitution. And after going through these deliberations thoroughly, regardless of whether or not we actually end up revising it, we must fully consider our constitution as our own and take responsibility for all of its contents—including its asterisks.