from Asia Unbound and Will the Japanese Change Their Constitution?

A Korean View: Japan’s Constitutional Revision Debate

A protester holding signs participates in an anti-Japan rally to solve the issue of comfort women, who served the Japanese military during World War Two, in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on July 25, 2007. Jo Yong-Hak/REUTERS

Last updated May 12, 2017

A protester holding signs participates in an anti-Japan rally to solve the issue of comfort women, who served the Japanese military during World War Two, in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on July 25, 2007. Jo Yong-Hak/REUTERS
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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. Sheen Seong-ho is professor of international security and East Asia at Seoul National University.

Most Koreans are against Japan’s constitutional reform and consider it a sign of Japan’s revert back to militarism. Personally, I do not agree with such an interpretation. I doubt that Japan has any desire to return to militarism, as its people feel that they are the greatest victims of such a past. Besides, it is unlikely that the current Japanese nation, with a super-aging population and a shrinking economy, has the capacity to become an expansionist power even if it wanted to. Moreover, Japan’s revision efforts are partly aimed at augmenting the U.S.-Japan alliance, as the Americans have long demanded for a more active role by the Japanese military to adjust what they regard as an unbalanced alliance. Considering the rapidly widening economic and military gap with China, Japan has to inevitably rely on the United States for its security protection. However, my understanding belongs to the minority opinion among both the educated intellectuals and the commoners in South Korea.

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The decision on whether to revise their constitution is ultimately up to the Japanese society and its political leadership. Yet, the potential deterioration in Japan’s relationship with China and South Korea—two of its closest and most powerful neighbors—that could result from the revision cannot be ignored. Angry protests on the streets of Beijing and Seoul are highly possible if the revision actually occurs. The Japanese leaders may feel futileness of trying to convince these two countries of Japan’s security interests, but should make sincere efforts in this regard. It is unclear, however, whether Japan would make such efforts, since its relations with China and South Korea have been aggravated over historical interpretations and territory issues.

Japan should endeavor to improve its relations with its two neighbors, because its being perceived as a new emerging threat could destabilize East Asia. Either by misunderstanding or misled public opinion, most Koreans and Chinese consider Japan’s constitutional revision a march back to its military past. If the revision goes as planned, it could provoke or provide excuse for a new round of arms race in the region. Such a consequence will be against Japan’s national interest, so Japan should make it clear that its commitment to the spirit of the Peace Constitution remains steadfast. It should be obvious to everyone that the revision is a defensive measure and an attempt to fulfill its alliance duties with the United States.

The efforts that Japan should make will undoubtedly be difficult. As for Japan’s relationship with South Korea, historical disputes on textbooks, territories, and comfort women have strained the relationship. Former President Park Geun-hye had refused to have a summit meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for more than three and half years since her inauguration in 2012. The two leaders finally met in Seoul in November 2015 which was followed by a historical agreement over the comfort women issue between the two governments in December. This was possible because Abe accepted South Korea’s longstanding demand to acknowledge Japan’s responsibility toward the Korean comfort women at the government level. Park also exercised pragmatic leadership to move on for the sake of bilateral partnership with Japan. Despite the breakthrough between the two governments, public opinions of the two countries toward each other largely remain negative, according to the most recent poll by EAI-Genron NPO for the fiftieth anniversary of Japan-Korea normalization in 2015. 72.5 percent of Koreans had negative images of Japan while only 15.7 percent had positive ones. This was mutually exhibited, as only 23.8 percent Japanese considered Koreans positively, while 52.4 percent expressed negative views. In addition, according to Yomiuri-Hankuk Daily polls, 85 percent of Koreans and 73 percent of Japanese did not trust each other. Nevertheless, both felt such an ice cold relations is undesirable, as 67.2 percent of Koreans and 67.8 percent of Japanese said that they are concerned with and want improvements to the situation.

Fortunately, since the December 2015 agreement on the comfort women, the two governments have dealt with each other more prudently, avoiding provocations over historical issues. Also, despite widely shared criticism among civic groups, progressive liberals, and nationalist right wings of Korean society toward Japan’s allegedly half-hearted apology and compensation, there was no incident of mass protest or violence that was rampant during the previous government’s free trade agreement negotiations or beef imports agreement with the United States. Instead, North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and long range missile launch in early 2016 dominated news coverage of the South Korean media. During the commemoration ceremony of the March 1st mass protest against Japanese colonial rule, Park devoted most of her speech to denouncing Pyongyang for the nuclear provocation. Historical issues with Japan were barely mentioned. Since then the two countries have worked closely in their common objective to punish North Korea’s nuclear provocation with other international partners.

Indeed, South Korea has enough incentives to endorse Japan’s revision in light of the aforementioned indications of positive change in the relationship between the two countries. It is ironic that Korea perceives Japan, with whom it shares same liberal democratic values, as a larger threat than China who has different values and a much larger defense budget. Although South Korea has a similar skepticism about the revision to that of China, the two countries have formed a vastly different relationship with the United States. The strengthened U.S.-Japan alliance could be a challenge to China’s national security but an insurance against Japanese militarism for Korea. In fact, Seoul wishes to seek partnership in the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system, of which Japan is already an important part, while China fiercely opposes the system. Consequently, Japan and South Korea might come eye to eye on what presents the real threat to their national security, opening up greater opportunities for collaborations to achieve regional peace and stability. Japan’s more forthcoming effort to deal with its troubled past with South Korea would greatly facilitate such a process.

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