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Foreign Policy

Japan-US Relationship at A Critical Historical Moment

May 29 , 2013

Of late, one of the hottest topics about Japanese politics is Japan’s constitutional revision, because the result of the election of the House of Councilors in July will most probably enable the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Restoration Party, which stand for constitutional revision, to have their wishes fulfilled. Constitutional revision is Japan’s internal affairs, but the international community is highly concerned about it. This is because the result of Japan’s constitutional revision will exert a significant impact on Japan’s future orientation, its relations with its neighboring countries and the

Liu Jiangyong

Japan’s first constitution was the Meiji Constitution – Constitution of the Empire of Japan – promulgated on February 11 1889 (the 2nd year of Meiji Reign). It stipulated the principle that sovereignty resided in the person of the Emperor, by virtue of his divine ancestry “unbroken for ages eternal”, and that the “Emperor is the head of the Empire, combining in himself the rights of sovereignty”. In 56 years thereafter, under the absolute rule of the emperor, Japan successively launched the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, the Japan-Russia War, and the war of aggression against China in the Pacific war, until Japan surrendered after total defeat in 1945.

Japan’s second constitution is the Constitution of Japan, which has been in effect since May 3, 1947, after WWII up to the present. It can be said that this constitution was an outcome of the victory of the world’s anti-fascist war. To a large extent, it embodies the Japanese people’s desire for maintaining peace and Japan’s self-restraint. For instance, Article Nine of the Constitution provides that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” To this end, the article provides that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” The Emperor is only a symbol of the state of Japan and the Japanese nation without any administrative power. Within the framework of the post-war constitution, Japan has adhered to solely defensive security safeguards policy, and refrains from exercising the so-called “collective defense right” in joint operations with the U.S., prohibits export of weapons and implements the three principles of no possession, no manufacturing and no import of nuclear weapons. In the 66 years since the constitution came into effect, Japan did not launch war against other countries. Therefore, Japan’s post-war constitution is also called a “peace constitution”.

Over a long period of time, some Japanese have stood for a constitutional revision in order to shake off the post-war self-restraint and the control of the international order. One of their principal “justifications” is that Japan’s post-war constitution was drafted by the Americans and imposed on Japan and therefore it must be revised. It should be noted that the post-war US control over Japan has always had a dual nature: to prevent the restoration of militaristic revenge on the U.S., and to use Japan to serve the US global strategy of seeking hegemony. In the initial period after WWII, according to the the Potsdam Declaration, which was accepted by Japan, the GHQ of allied forces stationed in Japan and headed by the U.S. demanded that Japan formulate a new constitution. The U.S. was dissatisfied with the fact that the post-war constitution drafted by Japan still had such contents as retaining the commanding power of Japanese emperor. In order to prevent the restoration of militarism, the GHQ put forward a draft constitution to the Japanese side in February 1946. At that time, Japan revised the draft constitution on the basis of the draft put forward by the U.S. It was formally passed after deliberation and revision by the Japanese Diet for more than one hundred days and officially promulgated on Nov. 3, 1946 after the approval by the Emperor. Therefore, it can be said that the post-war Constitution of Japan is Japan’s own ultimate decision.

Thereafter, the US attitude towards the Japanese constitution changed several times, from acknowledgement in the post-war initial period, to hoping for Japan’s expansion of troops, in disregard of Japan’s constitutional restraint, to jointly contain the former Soviet Union and China in the Cold War period; and in the 1980’s, when Japan and the U.S. were locked in fierce trade frictions, accusing Japan of taking a free ride in the security safeguards and encouraging Japan to have a flexible interpretation of its constitution so as to share US defense responsibilities; and still further, after the US Republic government launched war in Afghanistan in 2001, the U.S. openly pushed for Japan’s constitutional revision. At present, the Obama Administration does not need Japan to send troops overseas, it seems that the US attitude toward Japan’s constitutional revision is relatively cautious.

More than 20 years ago, some US strategists said to this author: the U.S.-Japan alliance, like a stopper, can obstruct Japan from becoming a militaristic or military power. I pointed out then: the U.S.-Japan alliance is actually more like an eggshell. Japanese Right-wing forces and military forces, like an ever-growing queer bird, will quickly swell and ultimately burst out the shell once the temperature is suitable. Now, facts seem to have proved that the US appeasement policy toward the Japanese Right-wing forces in the past has resulted in the Japanese Right-wing forces gaining momentum in constitutional revision. A case in point is Shintaro Ishihara who had long been standing for constitutional revision claimed as early as in the 1970’s that Japan can say “No” to the U.S. Now, as one of the representatives of Japan’s Restoration party, he openly states that Japan should become a military power possessing hi-tech and discussing “nuclear armament”. It is precisely the excessive US self-confidence that has forced it to gradually lose its actual control and influence over Japan. It can be predicted that no matter what the US intensions are, so long as the LDP, the Restoration Party and “Your Party” can win over 2/3 majority seats in the Japanese House of Councilors after July’s election, Japan’s constitutional revision will become an inevitable trend.

Japan has the habit of allying with the strong. It formed the Japan-UK alliance in 1902 and the Germany-Japan-Italy alliance in 1940, resulting in the wars respectively against Russia, China and the U.S. under the Constitution of the Empire of Japan. After WWII, Japan allied with the U.S. but did not launch aggression against other countries. One of the important reasons is that Japan has taken a path of peaceful development under the restraint of the post-war Constitution of Japan.

However, should Article Nine of the post-war Japanese constitution be revised, “defense troops” will be incorporated into the constitution, force will be used to protect the so-called “life and freedom of Japanese nationals” and the emperor’s status as the head of state will be restored. This would not only affect the Sino-Japanese relationship, but the Japan-U.S. alliance will also face new options. By then, the U.S. either would be led by the nose to join Japan in an confrontation with China on the issue of the Diaoyu Islands, resulting in the Japanese Right-wing forces gaining benefit from the China-U.S. rivalry, or it would give in and be partial to Japan on major issues because the Japanese Right-wing forces would continuously play the “possession of nuclear weapons” card, thus forfeiting US leadership over the U.S.-Japan alliance. Or, restrained by the bottom-line of tolerance of US social conscience about Japanese Right-wing regime, it would check the Japanese Right deviationist trend, resulting in political rift in the U.S.-Japan alliance and unavoidable frictions over the values of conceptions of history and war, or continue to take an indulgent attitude toward Japan’s constitutional revision. However, when the U.S. realizes all of a sudden the consequences of US appeasement policy toward Japan, it would be probably only a matter of time for a swell of its extremist nationalism to rise up.

Liu Jiangyong is the Vice President of the Research Institute of Contemporary International Relations at Qinghua University.

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