A Militarized Japan? The Quest to Revise Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution

A Militarized Japan? The Quest to Revise Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution

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Rising sun flag
Will Japan move from maintaining a pure self-defense force to creating an army that can go on the offensive?

In September 2018, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was re-elected for another consecutive term in office, making him Japan’s longest-serving PM since World War II. Known for his “Abenomics,” nationalistic perspectives, and his problematic views on the “comfort women” issue, Abe’s re-election enables him to continue doggedly pursuing an ambitious and widely contentious goal — revising certain key articles of Japan’s Constitution.

Constitutional reform (改憲; kaiken) has never been accomplished in Japan. Since its promulgation in 1947 during the Occupation period, the Constitution has been left untouched. Abe started stirring the pot on kaiken as far back as 2012, and with China and North Korea increasing their military operations, kaiken will continue to be a hot topic in political and public circles.

What is Article 9?

The constitutional article receiving the most attention is Article 9 which, to put it briefly, prohibits Japan from arming for war and engaging in handling international conflicts.

After World War II and Japan’s surrender, one objective of the Occupation forces was to rewrite Japan’s Meiji constitution to modern standards. The writing of Article 9 ensured Japan never had an army sufficient to engage in war. In other words, Japan is handicapped from participating in international conflict and arming for large-scale self-defense.

Ironically, during the outset of the Cold War it was the Americans that begged Japan to protect fledgling U.S-Japan interests. While drafting the peace treaty that would end the Occupation and “free” Japan’s government, Occupation leaders wanted Japan to strike a military alliance with the U.S.

By this time, however, a pacifist attitude gripped Japan, fueled by the aftermath of the war and the crippling loss of life and society. This pacifist attitude reigns true today among the Japanese, only one of the numerous obstacles hindering Abe’s dream of kaiken[1].

In interpreting Article 9, the Japanese government figured they could at least establish a military force for purely defensive measures, which led to the 1954 creation of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). The SDF is all that Japan has in way of a military, and it’s a meager force at that in comparison to China and South Korea. Whether the SDF is constitutional or not has been the crux of numerous arguments for years. In July of 2014, the government used the ambiguity of Article 9 to strength the capabilities of the SDF, much to the chagrin of politicians and civilians alike.


Kaiken is contingent on three conditions: a two-thirds majority in the Lower House, a two-thirds majority in the Upper House, and a majority vote in a national referendum. Abe and the LDP have garnered enough seats to fulfill two of those three conditions. All that remains is for a proposal to be submitted to the Diet for consideration prior to a referendum. So far, an official proposal has yet to be accepted, though attempts have been made.

Abe’s Proposed Revisions to Article 9

Abe and his allies view Article 9 as severely limiting Japan’s ability to protect their borders against threatening military maneuvers from China and North Korea especially. The U.S already has a claustrophobic military presence in Japan – a presence that has caused a chronic political headache, particularly in Okinawa, whose US base is widely despised and opposed. Revising and adding to Article 9 would alter U.S-Japan relations and bring Japan to the forefront of regional conflict for the first time in over 70 years.

In 2012, Abe and the LDP secured more seats in the Upper House, thereby allowing them to start fully pursuing their goal of kaiken. That year saw the issuance of a lengthy, ambitious draft proposal for kaiken. Some of the suggested revisions were more clarifications of already established clauses meant to erase any ambiguities. Perhaps the most controversial change to Article 9 involves a complete deletion of the clause forbidding belligerency and military maintenance.

In place of this clause would be the addition of a clause titled “National Defense Force.” The new National Defense Force (NDF) would replace the SDF, and the Prime Minister would oversee the deployment and management of NDF forces, with major decisions handled by the Diet. With this clause, Japan could use military might in assisting allies, as well as allow Japan to once again maintain land, sea and air forces, something the current Article 9 prohibits[2].

Article 9 is by no means the only issue Abe and his pro-revision pals see as inhibiting Japan’s potential, but it is by far the most controversial. While the 2012 proposal was eventually abandoned, another proposal in 2016 highlighted the necessity for revision of Article 9 similar to the 2012 plan. That, too, was trashed. At the end of 2018, Abe and allies scrapped yet another anticipated draft of a kaiken proposal. With Abe’s term in office extended until 2021, he’ll have to work harder against political headwinds if he wants to get a finished proposal to the Diet before his time in office ends.

Political Opposition and Support

This Rising Sun Flag (kyokujitsu) on a ship
The Rising Sun flag is controversial, as it’s seen by some as a sign of Japan’s imperial past. Recently, South Korea refused to participate in naval drills with Japanese ships sporting the flag. (Source: マノリ / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Unsurprisingly, the mere mention of kaiken sparked heated discussions among political parties. Komeito (公明党), despite being a confidant and coalition partner of the ruling LDP, has strong roots in the pacifist Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, and have mostly been reluctant to revise Article 9. The current leader of the Japanese Communist Party, Kazuo Shii, believes a revision of Article 9 would inevitably lead to Japan’s involvement in war, something to bely at all costs.

Earlier this month, LDP Secretary Ishiba Shigeru and Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan member Yamao Shiori expressed doubt over Abe’s chances of successfully revising Article 9. Despite Abe’s renewed zeal in kaiken with the success of his re-election, the reality of implementing such monumental changes is a far cry from what Japan can actually do, something his allies seem to be questioning[3].

Back in 2016, Yuichiro Tamaki, a member of the House of Representatives, wrote about his feelings on Article 9 revision:


I don’t think this will lead to peace for Japan and the Japanese people. In particular, if Article 9 is changed and the government fully recognizes the collective right of self-defense, we will be supporting one side by military force, and we will become involved in a war without end[4].

However, Abe is backed by a range of support, helped by his affiliation with Nippon Kaigi (日本会議), an organization (or a cult, as some call it) that aims, among other things, to free Japan from constraints placed on it by articles in the Constitution, like Article 9. Nippon Kaigi is the main driving force pushing for revision, and with many of its members occupying political and other influential offices, such as Tokyo governor Koike Yuiko, their voice isn’t going away anytime soon[5].

On the other hand, kaiken support has come from some unlikely places. In 2015, popular pear fairy mascot Funasshi announced support for Article 9 revision. It was a sly move for this corporation to engage in politics through their kawaii mascot. If you’re a fan of Funasshi, then you must be a fan of Funasshi’s views, right?

Not necessarily, and for the most part, the public isn’t buying what Funasshi or Abe have to say.

A Divided Public

The public has been anything but lax in expressing their opinions on constitutional revision. Unlike in the political parties, there seems to be no gray area in opinions when it comes to Article 9 — either people vehemently oppose revision, or are all for it[6].

Since Abe began to talk about kaiken, protestations and support rallies alike have sprung up, mostly in metropolitan areas. On Japanese Twitter, people share their opinions and worries about revision. Most of the tweets I came across were against revision. Some people, like Twitter user @kenpouhikaku, educate others about Japan’s constitution and what a new revised constitution would look like.

くらべてみよう 現憲法と改憲案 on Twitter: “【#憲法くらべ猫 】#9条 #戦争の放棄#現憲法 では戦争の放棄 だけど、#改憲案 では#安全保障 に変わってるにゃ。#憲法改正 #国民投票pic.twitter.com/moSDpBpUFP / Twitter”

【#憲法くらべ猫 】#9条 #戦争の放棄#現憲法 では戦争の放棄 だけど、#改憲案 では#安全保障 に変わってるにゃ。#憲法改正 #国民投票pic.twitter.com/moSDpBpUFP

Twitter account @kenpouhikaku designs cute infographics with helpful cats comparing the current constitution with a probable revised constitution. Cue the “In a world…” movie trailer voiceover.

Polls indicate that people are concerned about reliving Japan’s pro-militaristic past and all its attached horrors. Other people simply don’t want to become dragged into a war not of their own making, and who can blame them? Kaiken isn’t just a political issue, but involves every single citizen of Japan in every level of society. Whether they like it or not, kaiken debates aren’t going away — and reminders of the issue keep popping up, even at a Coming of Age Day ceremony.

2019 is set to be busy year for Japan — they’re hosting the G20 Summit as well as the Rugby World Cup. There’s also imperial matters to consider; as mentioned in our write-up on Emperor Akihito’s impending abdication, Abe will have a hard time getting any proposal to the Diet for consideration amid Akihito’s abdication and Crown Prince Naruhito’s ascension to the throne. 2020 will be even busier with the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, so the time window for submitting a proposal for revision is even smaller.

Even if Abe manages to grind out a proposal for revision and the Diet accepts it, it still has to secure a majority public vote in order to go into effect. I’m no political expert, but I think the public will shoot down Abe’s long-sought-after goal of kaiken. Pacifism is strong, and the collective memory of World War II is difficult to combat with promises of sole national self-defense. If Abe’s persistence is any indication, we won’t have to wait long on what his next plan of action will be.


[1] Article 9 and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Columbia University

[2] How Specifically Does Japan’s LDP Want to Revise the Constitution? Diplomat

[3] Link no longer active

[4] 参院選、なんか「改憲」?意味よくわからんし…という方々へ. Huffington Post Japan

[5] Why Shinzo Abe faces an uphill battle to revise Japan’s constitution. Washington Post

[6] Massive protests mark Japan’s 71st Constitution Memorial Day. Xinhua

Alyssa Pearl Fusek

Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance writer and aspiring Japanese-English translator currently haunting the Pacific Northwest. She holds a B.A. in Japanese Studies from Willamette University. When she's not writing for Unseen Japan, she's either reading about Japan, writing poetry and fiction, improving her Japanese language skills, reading four or more books, petting cats, or drinking copious amounts of jasmine green tea. You can follow her on Twitter at @apearlwrites.

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