Shinzo Abe’s way of reinterpreting Japan’s pacifist constitution won’t wash

He has bitten off more than he can chew

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The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has provoked a furore after using his parliamentary majority to force through a “reinterpretation” of the country’s constitution, giving Japan the right to collective self-defence. It shows no sign of abating.

Japan’s post-war constitution, drafted by Western lawyers, imposed radical pacifism on the defeated and abject nation. Article 9 reads: “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”

Japanese nationalists have bridled against those “humiliating” terms ever since, but pacifism became intrinsic to the way the nation recovered. And most Japanese have been comfortable with these arrangements, not only because the American umbrella removed the necessity of worrying about self-defence but also because they proved an effective antidote to the warmongering horrors of Imperial Japan.

These horrors were as extreme for ordinary Japanese as they were for the countries invaded by Japan. The Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was one of the great imperial scams; a pretence of pan-Asian comradeship masking a conviction of racial superiority and a fanatical belief in the divine prerogatives of the Emperor.

To ordinary Japanese they brought the imposition of ferocious conformism, commitment to mass suicide in the event of invasion, and the destruction in Allied bombing raids of nearly all of the nation’s cities. To South-east Asia they brought subjection to an imperial power that made the departed Western ones seem benign by comparison. After the brief joy of liberation, Asian countries quickly learned the ugly truth about Japanese domination and never forgot it.

General MacArthur’s pacifist constitution set Japan’s extraordinary energy free. The consequent industrial miracle not only hauled the Japanese economy out of the dirt but was a key factor in the transformation of living standards throughout the region. The Japanese are not great at blowing their own trumpets but that is the simple truth.

The “co-prosperity” idea vaunted in the 1930s brought only war, mass death and misery. Returning to the theme in pacifist vein in the 1950s and 1960s – as the “transistor salesman” so snobbishly scorned by General de Gaulle (referring to the then Japanese Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda) – they came good second time around. The Japanese are no longer loathed in South-east Asia. In fact, their often sensitive and scrupulous way of investment contrasts starkly with the heavy-handed and cynical Chinese approach.

The quickest way to destroy all that good work and upturn the collaborative, non-arrogant persona Japan has cultivated in Asia for the past half-century would be for the nationalistic instincts of Mr Abe and his supporters to begin to define the way Japan behaves. That is the danger of the present situation, and that is why Mr Abe has encountered such widespread hostility inside Japan to the way in which he proposes to transform the nation’s character and behaviour.

It’s the way he has done it that causes the greatest indignation. It looks like sleight of hand. Mr Abe, who had a brief, unremarkable spell as premier some years back, came roaring into power in 2012 with bold and novel ideas about curing the Japanese economy of the stagnation that has beset it since the late 1980s.

It was a complicated recipe but had the merit of never having been tried before, and it has yet to be pronounced a dead loss. But what it did not involve was turning Japan inside out and reinventing it as a military power ready and able to challenge China for regional hegemony.

Japanese democracy is far from perfect, but the idea of consensus – either within companies or politics – is deeply ingrained. This is why Japan often seems a slow moving sort of place, despite its once-upon-a-time economic dynamism: everybody has to be fully on board with a strategy before a company, or the country at large, is willing to move, whereupon it does so with impressive dispatch.

This is what Mr Abe has trampled on with his “reinterpretation” of the pacifist constitution. As Japanese commentators point out, it’s the wrong way to go about it. Back in 2007, during his first term as premier, Mr Abe proposed a radical revision of the constitution involving a referendum, to be followed, if successful, by parliamentary approval.

Finding that too much of a fag, this time he has opted for a quick and dirty approach, achieving similar goals without building the necessary public support.

In the process he has bitten off more than he can chew. As Peter Tasker wrote in the Financial Times this week, Mr Abe’s attempt to galvanise the economy is still under way. It’s a work in progress. It needs solid political capital to make it happen. The hostility to what is seen as his war-mongering could scupper it and send Japan back into its box.

Why should the world’s third-largest economy continue to shelter under an American umbrella? Pacifism is not a new theme in Japan: after expelling the Christian missionaries in the 16th century, Japan closed its doors to the world and also gave up the gun, regarded as a barbarous weapon, restoring the samurai sword to its place of honour.

Sakoku, “closed-country”, Japan prospered without guns and modern warfare; open, pacifistic post-war Japan has enjoyed a long golden age, despite its economic problems.

The mass of Japanese have no desire to ring down the curtain on that age without a proper debate.

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