Japan’s Culture Day and Constitution
Friday is Culture Day, an annual national holiday for promotion of culture and the love for freedom and peace. So will this year’s Culture Day be any different from previous ones? As in the past, there will be a lot of festivities such as art exhibitions, parades, and award ceremonies for distinguished artists and scholars across the country to commemorate the holiday. But the political landscape surrounding Culture Day has changed significantly in the past year.
It was Nov 3, 1946 that the present constitution of Japan was promulgated to replace the Meiji constitution. To commemorate this event, the date was made into a holiday two years later to foster the ideals of the constitution — the love of peace and freedom — through cultural activities. The constitution did not actually come into force until May 3, 1947, though, and so there's a separate national holiday, Constitution Day. Nov 3 had previously been celebrated as Meiji Setsu, the birthday of the Meiji Emperor. Strangely enough, Nov 3 always seems to be blessed with fine weather.
The current constitution has never been altered, in stark contrast with Japan's World War II ally, Germany. Including the period when it was called West Germany until its 1990 unification with communist East Germany, Germany has changed its basic law — or constitution — more than 40 times since the war. The Meiji constitution, predecessor of the present constitution, was never altered during its 57-year history, either. In Japan, a constitution has tended to be put on a pedestal as an “immortal code.” The Taiho code, established in the early 8th century, was revised in the middle of the same century and renamed the Yoryo code. The ancient code effectively became a dead letter soon afterwards but lived on for about 1,100 years — albeit only nominally — until the 1868 Meiji Restoration, which ended the Tokugawa Shogunate and restored imperial power.
Just a year ago, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) adopted its draft of a new constitution to replace the current war-renouncing, pacifist constitution, drafted by the U.S. occupation forces immediately after Japan's 1945 defeat in World War II. Establishing a "self-imposed constitution" has been the LDP's credo since its 1955 founding. It was the first time the LDP had proposed a new constitution in writing.
The LDP draft calls for rewriting Article 9 — the clause almost synonymous with Japan's post-war pacifism as it renounces the use or threat of force as a means of settling international conflicts — to acknowledge clearly the existence of a "military for self-defense." It also calls for more active participation in international peace cooperation activities. The current constitution is widely interpreted as forbidding the possession of a military. Although, in reality, Japan has about 240,000 troops of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and one of the world's biggest defense expenditures, successive governments have explained away the contradiction by claiming that SDF is not a military.
Political momentum for revising the constitution has mounted following the LDP’s landslide victory in general elections in September last year. The LDP-New Komeito coalition garnered more than a two-thirds majority in the Lower House. And Shinzo Abe, a nationalist and staunch advocate of a new constitution, became the new LDP president and prime minister in late September, succeeding Junichiro Koizumi.
Abe, 52, is the youngest postwar premier. He is also the first premier born after the war. His rise to the top government post marked a new turning point for Japanese politics. Naming his new administration the "nation-building cabinet," Abe has said he wants Japan to revive family values, be proud of its identity and take leadership in international affairs. He has called for a “departure from the postwar regime” by revising the pacifist constitution, among other things.
Abe has said he will seek to have constitutional amendments realized within five years. It remains to be seen, however, if the supreme law can be revised while he is in office. Under Article 96, any amendments must be proposed with support of a two-thirds or more of both houses of the Diet and then be approved in a national referendum with a simple majority vote. Legislation setting procedures for such a referendum is still pending in the Diet. The LDP-New Komeito coalition is still far short of a two-thirds majority in the Upper House. In addition, New Komeito, backed by the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, remains reluctant about rewriting Article 9.
To be sure, adoption of a new constitution could be years away. But the world is still sitting up and taking notice.
The growing political momentum toward constitutional amendments have been hailed by many security and foreign-policy experts in Japan's most important ally, the United States, as clear evidence that Tokyo is going in the right direction to become a more reliable and responsible security partner regionally and globally. But it has raised grave concerns among many in Japan’s Asian neighbors who fear that the country's military genie might be finally beginning to escape its bottle, 60 years after the war. Many in Japan’s Asian neighbors, especially China and South Korea, still harbor bitter memories of Japan’s wartime aggression and atrocities.
For many years since the end of World War II, even the slightest sign of nationalism in Japan had been widely denounced at home as well as abroad as signaling a resurgence of militarism. But the situation has changed dramatically in recent years. A tide of nationalism seems to be on the rise.
Many Japanese also feel more insecure in the increasingly volatile security environment surrounding their country. Discussions on questions that had long been considered taboo have moved into the Japanese mainstream. There have been discussions in the political and media circles even about the pros and cons of Japan possessing nuclear weapons to defend itself. There is growing alarm in Japan over potential threats posed by neighbors North Korea and China. Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test and test-firing of missiles have significantly heightened concerns among most Japanese.
Japan is also under increasing pressure from the US to shoulder more of the burden of its foreign and security policy, regionally and globally. Having the kind of "self-imposed" new constitution that was drafted by the LDP is not merely a matter of national pride, but something Japanese leaders firmly believe the nation must do to cope with those new challenges. Like his predecessors, Koizumi stretched the boundaries of the constitution, including deploying non-combat SDF troops to Iraq, the first SDF mission to a combat zone after World War II.
After being elected the LDP president, Abe said, "I want to take the helm to lead the country in the right direction.” But critics fear that he might lead the country in the wrong direction.
Abe has been elected five times to the Diet since 1993 from a constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture, western Japan. Yamaguchi was once called Choshu. Samurai from the Choshu clan played a leading role in the Meiji Restoration. The main power of the Meiji government was from the former Choshu clan, including the first prime minister, Hirofumi Ito.
Koizumi, who roared into office in April 2001 with a vow to “destroy the old LDP,” changed the way Japanese politics work. Koizumi became widely known as the "destroyer” and sought to cast himself in the same light as the 16th century warlord Oda Nobunaga, who ushered in a new era of national reunification after 100 years of strife. Abe apparently has a strong desire to become the “creator.” Having in mind Choshu people who built the post-samurai era, Abe said, “People from Choshu are good at creating things.” However, the biggest question is: what will he create?
Friday marks the 60th anniversary of the constitution’s promulgation. Last year marked the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. In Japan, 60-year-olds have customarily been celebrated for their kanreki - the end of the traditional sexagenary cycle in which people are said to be born again when they reach the age of 60. But many people in neighboring Asian countries would not want to see Japan reincarnated as a country with a full-fledged military force that projects its power abroad freely, just as the country was until its World War II defeat.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economics.