20.05.2022 Author: Vladimir Terehov

What Would an Amendment of the “Anti-War” Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution Mean?


The NEO tracks more or less regularly any significant developments in the evolution of Japanese defense policy, construed broadly. That is, attention is drawn to the long-standing debate on (possible) changes to the existing legal framework, the remarkable trends in military buildup itself, and the highly practical nature and extent of Japan’s military activities outside its national territory.

Generally speaking, the mere existence of said military activities is not very consistent with the national constitution that has been in force since 1947, Article 9 of which states that Japan has renounced, “forever”, first, the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes and, second, the intention to create armed forces.

In other words, the very fact that contemporary Japan has a problem with the transfer of military activities beyond its national borders means that, contrary to the second paragraph of Article 9, the country already has a tool for this kind of “transfer.” Indeed, the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), which have been gradually formed in Japan since the mid-1950s, are in fact one of the most powerful armed forces in the world today, with a total strength of about 250,000 soldiers. Which, again, are not supposed to even exist, and if we see state-of-the-art warships at sea and equally modern warplanes in the air, this should probably be seen as an optical hallucination.

In terms of absolute annual defense expenditure ($50-55 billion, depending on the exchange rate of the yen), Japan ranks 6th or 7th in the world. However, as a share of the country’s GDP, it is only about 1% and this figure (one of the lowest in the world) has remained unchanged for decades. This serves as the main counterargument to the frequent accusations (heard mainly from abroad) of “tendencies towards the revival of Japanese militarism.”

In addition to the three “traditional” branches (Ground Forces, Air Force and Navy), the SDF now includes special units dedicated to fighting in space, cyberspace and electromagnetic fields.  At the end of March this year, it was reported that there was an intention to set up a special “global intelligence” service within the Ministry of Defense.

Although nowadays the SDF has already acquired some offensive capabilities (helicopter carriers, modern submarines, fighter-bombers and assault command units of the Ground Forces can be used for that purpose), so far the general image of Japan’s armed forces largely corresponds to the original purpose for which they were created. It boiled down to ensuring the defense of the “four main” Japanese islands against invasion by foreign troops. Preventive countermeasures are carried out mainly by the US military, with which Japan is in a political and military alliance.

As part of the general discussion about expanding its capacity for pre-emptive strikes against adversaries, there is periodic discussion (mainly in the foreign media) about the possibility of Japan developing nuclear weapons. First, there are no legal obstacles (Japan’s renunciation of the possession of nuclear weapons is voluntary, imposed on it by its government in the late 1960s) and second, it has all the necessary materials and technology.

Two decades ago, some “IAEA experts” estimated that the period between the (hypothetical) decision to develop nuclear weapons in Japan and the appearance of first actual weapons would be a matter of months. It is hardly necessary to explain what this could mean for the situation in Northeast Asia.

If the above information is not a bluff (coming from Japan itself in order to “influence” some of its neighbors), it begs the question of the means of delivering (still hypothetical) nuclear weapons to the targets. Generally speaking, this role can already be performed today by fighter-bombers. But operational-tactical and intermediate-range missiles, which Japan does not (yet) have, would be even better suited to accomplish said goal. However, it should be noted that their deployment by the SDF’s would go directly against both paragraphs of Article 9.

It cannot be overlooked, therefore, that three aspects of Japan’s military development have become topical almost simultaneously and once again during the last two months. First, the issue of giving the SDF the right to launch a “pre-emptive strike” against targets in the territories of neighboring countries from which an attack on Japan is expected (for example, according to intelligence) has resurfaced. The issue was first raised in autumn 2020 by current Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi. Second, the need to deploy medium-range missiles in Hokkaido has been stated (at an event in Washington) on behalf of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has already announced the need to amend Article 9, which would constitutionally designate and define the status of the SDF within the Japanese state body.

There can be little doubt that all three aspects of Japan’s current military development phase are interrelated, the last of which will merely record “on paper” the results (though not the end results) of the country’s years-long, gradual process of overcoming the consequences of defeat in World War II.

The anti-war sentiment of Japanese society remains a major obstacle to the adoption of Kishida’s amendment to Article 9. Although recent opinion polls show increasing support for such an amendment, it is still below 50%. This feeling among ordinary people is understandable: experience (both bad and good) shows that a country can flourish and gain prestige in the international arena without breaking the ribs of its neighbors or risking breaking its own.

Alas, opinions of common people have little to no influence on the key question of the historical process (“war and peace”). Why it periodically becomes topical remains unclear.

The LDP’s initiative to double Japan’s spending expenditure in the next five years is evidence that the Japanese leadership also intends to “become like everyone else” in the defense sector. And while it reaching 2% of national GDP is average among the world’s leading players, the (future) absolute figure of $100 billion certainly blows one’s mind, especially given the country’s recent past.

Japan’s commitment to strengthening its alliance with the US as one of the pillars of its military buildup was reaffirmed during a visit by the Minister of Defense, Nobuo Kishi, in early May. The meeting with his US counterpart Lloyd J. Austin III focused on “countering aggression” from Russia and China.

Yet the simplest and shortest answer to the question posed in the title can be just two words: “Almost nothing.” This is not to say that the present article should not have been written, since the new events accompanying the development of Japan’s defense policy discussed here are noteworthy in their own right.

They confirm the crucial trend of the growing significance of the military component in the set of tools by which Japan is becoming more and more visible in the pool of leading players in the current stage of the Great Game.

It seems unproductive to label this trend with emotionally colored propaganda terms of the bygone era, such as “militarization.” Japan is becoming no more or less “militaristic” than all the other major world players. Simply put, the process of “normalization” of this country is coming to an end, if the very term “normal” can be applied to our increasingly crazy world.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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