from Asia Unbound and Will the Japanese Change Their Constitution?

Masatoshi Asaoka: Constitutional Revision—More Than Yes or No

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. Masatoshi Asaoka is currently a master’s candidate in the Asian studies program of Georgetown University and an intern for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Since coming to intern at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) this summer, I have been exposed to Japan’s constitutional debate and how my government has interpreted the constitution. During my internship, I read through innumerable pages of Diet debate over the meaning of collective self-defense and compiled polling data on public sentiments about the constitution. My research at CFR made me think about our past political discourse in Japan, and more importantly, about how the Japanese people can shape our future constitutional debate.

I became more aware of the debate on constitutional revision when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his cabinet made the decision to reinterpret the constitution in July 2014 and permit the use of force with other countries if it is in Japan’s security needs. Those who supported the Abe cabinet’s decision to reinterpret the constitution argued that it was necessary because the security environment surrounding Japan is rapidly changing. Yet many opposed the cabinet decision and massive protests were held in front of the Diet building. Far from Tokyo, Takeshi Onaga became the governor of Okinawa Prefecture, winning by a landslide in November 2014, by opposing the Japanese government’s plan to build a new U.S. Marine base there. Both Tokyo’s protestors and Governor Onaga shared the belief that their democratic rights had been infringed upon by the national government because of decisions made against their will.

In the midst of all this protest in Tokyo, I went to Okinawa for ten days to see the base problem from the other side. I visited the Peace Memorial Museums in Itoman City; prayed for those who felt forced to commit suicide in underground caves in World War II, called gama in Okinawan dialect; and talked to local activists over awamori, Okinawa’s famous distilled rice wine. I found this distrust of the Japanese government’s aims is deeply embedded in Okinawa’s bloody history, from the invasion of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the early seventeenth century to the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 that led to the U.S. military landing.

But there is more to their protests than history. The people in Okinawa who oppose having U.S. bases on their island feel their voices do not reach far enough to impact political decisions in Tokyo. Not everyone in Okinawa is against hosting the U.S. bases, and there are times when Tokyo officials have compromised with Okinawan protestors. One such compromise was the 1996 agreement between Tokyo and Washington to relocate the U.S. Marines from Futenma Air Base, located in densely populated Ginowan City.[1] Yet recent protests reveal a sense of neglect in Okinawa.

A similar sense of neglect seems evident in the popular protests against the new security legislation last September. While Diet members deliberated, the scale of the protests outside continued to grow as more Japanese felt dissatisfied that their voices were not being heard by the government. We must avoid this neglect of popular opinion if we are to debate our constitution. Although revisions of our constitution must be approved through a national referendum, the prior debate about what needs to be revised is just as important to the revision process. Our voices must also be included in that conversation about what must—or must not—be changed. For example, we should proactively discuss what principles represent Japanese tradition and what sort of rights are fundamental to Japanese citizens.

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There is much to be learned from our debates over the Okinawa bases and over the new security laws. We should no longer leave issues of the constitution to the government to decide or reinterpret, as they may not always represent the wills of people as shown last summer when the government passed the highly unpopular security legislation.

Typically, when people from opposing sides of Japan’s political spectrum discuss the constitution, particularly Article Nine, conservatives tend to talk about strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance and how to cope with emerging threats, whereas liberals prefer to focus on war memory and the need to protect our postwar pacifism. Rather than dividing ourselves into pro or con positions on constitutional revision, however, we must find a more constructive way to find common ground. We must also think about what kind of country the Japanese people want to leave to our future generations. By focusing on our country’s future, we should be able to talk with each other no matter how different our views or interests may be. The Japanese people, from the right and from the left, conservatives and liberals, need to talk about what kind of Japan we want to have in ten, fifty, even a hundred years from now. Rather than seeing the Upper House election results in terms of either a constitutional crisis or as a long sought opportunity for change, we should note that increasing numbers of Japanese seem to favor a national debate. This is an opportunity for a broad conversation, not simply a conversation that will take place among opposing parties in the Diet. We must talk about our security options as well as what Article Nine means to the Japanese people and their national identity.

All Japanese should acknowledge that they have an important voice in the shaping of Japanese identity, and should commit to having a constructive and respectful debate about our country’s constitution. The only way democracy can thrive in Japan is through greater debate and increase understanding across political lines between the conservatives and liberals. Our constitution should not be reduced to a pro- or con- position; rather a debate over the constitution should be perceived of as a discussion on Japan’s future.

While I may sound idealistic, I am not. My hope is that our country can focus on the real problems Japan is now facing or may face in the near future. There are many challenges ahead of us: economic competition with the emerging markets in our neighboring countries, rising conventional and unconventional security threats, demographic decline, and so on. Japan’s citizens must see themselves as partners with their government in decision making over the revision of their constitution. The entire process of deliberating whether to revise our constitution, no matter what the outcome, must be inclusive. Citizens should not feel left out, while our legislators and government discuss our future. Like protesters in Tokyo and Okinawa, we should not feel as if our government refuses to listen to our wishes.

Recently, Prime Minister Abe announced that his party, the Liberal Democratic Party, will not initiate a debate over constitutional revision based on their party’s draft, which has not gained much popularity. This gives the public a chance to take the lead in setting the tone of our national debate. Our government needs to carefully listen to public opinion beyond the election season and work together to craft a new basis for our debate over Japan’s constitution. Our society can only be strengthened if we take pride in our democracy and as citizens, claim our right to shape its future.

[1] Today, many protestors in Okinawa oppose the Henoko relocation plan, a plan to relocate Futenma Air Base to Henoko, Nago City located in the northern part of Okinawa.