Japan's explicitly pacifist constitution turns 70 on Wednesday. Ahead of the big birthday, a mail-in survey was conducted as to whether the Japanese population wants the constitution revised – and it seems about half the country does.
The Japanese population slightly favors a revision to Article 9, the section of the constitution that renounces war. Some 49 percent of respondents believe Article 9 must be changed, while 47 percent say it shouldn't be touched. But most do not want it changed now, with 51 percent saying they are against constitutional amendments under Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who then called for his country to make a historic revision to the document on Monday.
But all respondents are already living in a country that has a very different relationship to its military than it did in the very recent past. Even without changing the constitution, Abe has very deliberately sought to loosen the fetters that bound the Japanese military since World War II – and to play a bigger part in global security.
Abe already passed laws that allow Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense without violating Article 9, and lifted its ban on exporting weapons. Japan unveiled an initiative to further security with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, increasingly concerned as they are about China. On Monday, Japan sent its largest warship to accompany a U.S. supply vessel in Japanese waters.
Abe has already "achieved the goals that he wanted in terms of letting Japan be a more 'normal' nation" where military and defense are concerned, said Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute.
But Abe still has work to do to garner enough support to formally codify the changes to Japan's security laws through a constitutional change, said Jim Schoff of the Carnegie Endowment. That requires figuring out just what a revised Article 9 would say, and how unfettered Japan's armed forces would be. That is "the next big step in the staircase," he said.
Still, the fact that it is even up for discussion – with a good degree of public support – is in part a reflection of the changing world around Japan. Tokyo is staring at an erratic North Korea, an unpredictable South Korea, and an increasingly aggressive China, whether in the South China Sea or closer to home in the East China Sea. Capping it all off, Japanese leaders have in recent years sought to reassess their relationship with the United States, fearing too much reliance on Washington could leave them in the lurch.
That said, the Japanese people are still pacifistic, Auslin says. Beefing up the ability to defend themselves doesn't translate into much appetite for interventions around the world, or even in Asia.
A leader who forgets that and tries to turn Japan's new freedom of maneuver into an interventionist approach might get a reminder – in the form of removal from office.