The revisionists ascendant

Western commentators who only intermittently pay attention to Japan seem to be befuddled by the Japanese constitution. They seem to have a hard time grasping the difficulties associated with changing it, the totemic significance it has been made to bear by both pacifists and revisionists — and thus tend to assume that revision is easy, right, and only a matter of time. One example is Thomas Barnett’s glib comment about the inevitability of revision, discussed here. Another is this post at Commentary Magazine‘s Contentions blog by Gordon Chang, who tells readers that “article nine has not been enforced for decades.” True, perhaps, but missing the point entirely. Citing one of Japan’s “most prominent journalists,” [I have a hunch; do readers have any guesses?] Chang argues, “The constitution stigmatizes the past and…prevents Japan from becoming ‘a normal country.'”

Think about that: people don’t stigmatize the past, the constitution does. In other words, if the constitution were revised, Japan would be able to have an honest debate and there would be no more obfuscation or outright denial regarding atrocities committed by Imperial Japan during World War II.

Rather than continue to pick apart Chang’s argument, however, I would rather call your attention to an excellent monograph that spells out the history of Japan’s constitution revision debate and tries to answer the question of why, despite persistent pressure from revisionists, the constitution has gone unrevised to this day.

Written by J. Patrick Boyd and Richard Samuels in 2005, Nine Lives?: The Politics of Constitutional Reform in Japan outlines, in a mere sixty pages, the contours of Japan’s contested constitution (a book by that name, collecting primary sources related to revision, is this week’s book of the week [see link at right]). The Boyd and Samuels monograph is available from the East-West Center here.

What I especially liked about their argument is that it cuts through the flighty rhetoric that all sides have employed when talking about revision. Their rather elegant, parsimonious argument is that while pacifist norms and the global and regional balance of power have played a part in the revision debate, the constitution — and Article 9 in particular — has survived unchanged due to a balance of power among political forces within Japan during the postwar era.

Boyd and Samuels show that a triangular balance between revisionists, pragmatists, and pacifists has prevented the revisionists from succeeding, with the pragmatists — the school of Prime Minister Yoshida and his successors — holding the balance against revision in tacit alliance with the pacifists throughout the cold war. In other words, while for some Japanese the importance of the constitution has been its deeming Japan a “peace state,” the pragmatists defended it — sometimes by rejecting revision entirely, other times by pushing re-interpretations or compromises that preserved the essence of the amendment — as a means of avoiding the costs of alliance with the US that other “normal” allies had to bear. Accordingly, throughout the cold war, the pragmatists and revisionists battled for primacy in the LDP and thus in the Japanese political system, with the pragmatists holding the upper hand for much of the postwar period. Even during the Gulf War, when revisionist LDP Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro wanted to commit Japanese soldiers to the coalition, the pragmatist wing managed to defeat him and commit only funds to the campaign (with the perverse consequence that international backlash against Japan’s checkbook diplomacy fed into the revisionist argument that a newly wealthy Japan had to contribute more internationally).

Moving into the 1990s, Boyd and Samuels note that the pragmatist-pacifist dam holding the revisionist flood waters in place collapsed, with the Japanese left breaking down and the pragmatists in the LDP outmaneuvered and isolated by revisionists, who were encouraged by the more uncertain post-cold war international environment. Symbolic of this was the end of the “YKK” trio of Yamasaki Taku, Kato Koichi, and Koizumi Junichiro, an alliance between the pragmatic Yamasaki and Kato and the revisionist Koizumi. The pragmatists are not gone, of course — Yamasaki criticized the collective self-defense study group the other day — and with the Komeito an essential coalition partner for the LDP, pacifism still has a voice within the government. But the balance is undeniably shifted.

And so we see the revisionists ascendant, first under Koizumi, and now under Abe. Disagreeing with Graham Webster, slightly, I think the difference between Koizumi and Abe is not so much a matter of “sentimental” versus “practical”: it’s more a matter of political style. As in Isaiah Berlin’s useful (but perhaps over-used) dichotomy, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Koizumi was a classic fox, jumping from subject to subject, sometimes seeming to care more about style and image than substance. Abe, meanwhile, is obsessed with the constitution (and the “post-war regime) — his “one big thing.” Accordingly, although both Koizumi and Abe have seen disorder grow among opponents of constitution revision grow even as revisionists consolidated their control of the LDP, Koizumi abjured from striking directly at Article 9. Obviously, Abe has not, thanks in part to the LDP majority assembled in the September 2005 “postal reform” election.

Interestingly, as Boyd and Samuels note — and as I’ve argued before — that with the collapse of organized opposition to revision within the political system, the only potential source of opposition is from the Japanese people themselves. Whether they can or will is another question entirely, but the push for revision is an opportunity for the Japanese people to raise their voices and claim the process for themselves.

Another point they raise relevant to the situation today is that even as the revisionists gained power during the 1990s, they opted to hold off from re-interpreting Article 9 to permit collective self-defense, arguing that it was a waste of political capital to push for re-interpretation — reversible by a future government — when revision, a more permanent change, was so close at hand. And yet we see Prime Minister Abe pushing simultaneously for both revision and collective self-defense in limited cases. Is his ambitious agenda simply a function of his obsession, or is it a natural product of fifteen years of revisionist ascendancy? With Abe, are the revisionists not merely ascendant but triumphant?

Samuels and Boyd, wisely, hesitate to predict if and when revision will occur, arguing simply that Japan’s political dynamics over brought Japan to a critical turning point.

Meanwhile, they make an interesting point about a potential consequence of revision. Namely, if Abe succeeds, if Japan embraces collective self-defense and revises Article 9, Japan’s long-standing fears of entrapment by the US — an important part of the pragmatist position — will be more justified than ever. It becomes that much harder to say no to a US determined to go to war with Japan by its side without having Article 9 to hide behind. Given the tremendous unease with the alliance and with the prospect of Japan contributing to America’s wars that I’ve seen evinced by the Japanese people time and time again during my time here, changing Japan’s constitution to enable Japan to be a better ally of the US may have the unintended consequence of leading Japan to balk when asked (with all the attendant consequences).

With three years of debate to come, I strongly hope that if and when revision occurs, it will take into account the doubts and questions outlined by Boyd and Samuels — and that the ultimate form of any proposed revisions reflect the input of actors other than the revisionists.

Hopefully now that the Diet has passed the referendum bill, Samuels and Boyd will do some revising of their own and release a new version of this monograph that reflects the changes under Abe.

One thought on “The revisionists ascendant

  1. Great post here. My sentimental/practical labels were intended to refer more to the way in which the two politicians display nationalism than to their individual thoughts or feelings. I don\’t think this is incompatible with your observation of a difference in political style.Graham


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