Wednesday, June 06, 2007

In Defense of Article 9

Momentum is building in Japan to revise or drop altogether Article 9 of the constitution that prohibits maintaining “land, sea and air forces as well as other war potential.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made revision of the 1947 constitution a major goal of his administration. The Diet recently passed the legislation needed to hold a national referendum, although it is still problematical whether the government can muster the two-thirds majorities in both houses to pass the revisions.

On the surface there are compelling reasons to revise the document. One is to bring the paperwork in line with reality. Although the constitution prohibits maintaining any military forces in unequivocal language, in reality Japan maintains a sizeable “Self Defense Force.”

If the constitution were revived, it would, of course, end all talk of the self defense forces being unconstitutional and eliminate the need for various tortured arguments that have been advanced to justify the army (such as maintaining it is not a military but a kind of super police force).

Others argue that the language constrains Japanese diplomacy, makes it too dependent on the United States or, conversely, an unreliable “ally”. Some conservatives argue that constitution should be replaced because it was written by foreigners. Possessing armed forces is the “natural right” of all nations, they argue.

Yet there are compelling reasons to retain Article 9, which has served Japan well in the 60 years since the end of World War II. Indeed, polls show that an increasing numbers of Japanese are getting cold feet about the whole idea as it gets closer to reality.

But some of what the proponents of constitutional revision call advantages can also be seen as disadvantages. If the taboo on collective defense is eroded and Japan comes to assume a military role as a true US ally, it will be forced to go to war in future conflicts in which Washington plays a leading role.

In part because of Article 9 the self-defense forces were never sent to fight in the Vietnam War unlike South Korea, which sent several divisions there. The US had use of its bases in Japan to support operations in Indochina.

In that respect Article 9 has been likened to a safety valve on the US-Japan relationship that many Japanese feel is too important to give up lightly.

After the Gulf War in 1991, in which Tokyo contributed billions in financial support but no troops, it became increasingly difficult for Japan to avoid pressure to support adventures in the Middle East even by citing Article 9.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi supported the decision to invade Iraq and even decided to send ground and air forces to the region. When the ground forces returned to Japan, Koizumi boasted that the troops had never been caught up in the fighting and suffered no casualties.

That’s because the SDF chose a relatively safe corner and performed duties that involved no danger (protected by Dutch and later Australian troops) and thus was consistent with the spirit of Article 9. Without it Japanese troops might have ended up like the British, who have lost many troops.

In the past 60 years a consensus in Japan has taken hold. It amounts to support for the security treaty with the US support for the self-defense forces as presently configured, and missioned and Article 9.

This wasn’t always the case. Throughout most of those years the main opposition party, the Socialist Party of Japan formally opposed both the treaty and the self-defense forces as being contrary to the constitution.

If this consensus seems like holding two contradictory thoughts at one time, the Japanese would say let’s make the most of it.


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