TCS Daily

Japan's Constitutional Destiny

By Jason Miks - January 17, 2006 12:00 AM

TOKYO -- Sixty years ago this March, General Douglas MacArthur asked a small group of Americans to embark on an audacious task -- to write a new constitution for Japan. What made the request so extraordinary was that he wanted a first draft ready in just seven days. Yet despite this apparent haste, there has so far not been a single amendment made to the Japanese Constitution.

This is likely to change, and soon, as Japan's leaders reassess both how the country should be governed as well as its place in the world. A Diet research commission was established in 2000 to study reform and a subsequent report by a House of Representatives panel highlighted significant support for revision. Both the main political parties -- the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan -- have outlined proposed changes.

However, it is the LDP's plans for altering war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution -- which restricts the country's military role by stating that Japan can never maintain land, sea, and air forces -- that has been causing controversy not just domestically, but also amongst neighbors such as China and South Korea who fear that dropping the article will mean Japan becomes a regional bully.

But to get an idea of how a country is likely to act internationally, it is sometimes a good idea to look at how its leaders behave towards their own people. Charity may begin at home, but so too, usually, does bad behavior.

For example, lost amongst the heated debate of the Japanese constitution's antiwar provisions are a host of other articles covering universal suffrage, equality and human rights.

Equality before the law is guaranteed in the constitution -- by Article 14, which bans discrimination on the grounds of 'political, economic or social relations' or 'race, creed, sex, social status or family origin' and Article 44, which forbids any impediment to voting based on these grounds.

Freedom of assembly and association is also guaranteed and rigorously enforced in practice. The country has many active human rights, civic and environmental awareness groups and all are guaranteed a free voice by Article 21, which bars censorship.

Indeed it is arguable that the Japanese constitution provides for a wider range of human rights than even the US constitution. The result is a country which gets high marks from Freedom House for political, religious and media freedom.

Of course all this is not to say that what is provided for in principle is always available in practice. Human Rights Watch is not alone in raising concerns over the treatment of prisoners and forced confessions. And although women are supposed to be treated equally -- equality between the sexes is guaranteed in respect of marriage (Article 24) and childhood education (Article 26) -- they still too often face harassment or discrimination at work.

But far more often than not the acts of successive governments -- both in the way they have treated their own citizens and their moderate language abroad -- show a restraint and decency that suggest Japan would be more inclined to use any new found military capacity wisely. This is in stark contrast to the woeful lack of respect for freedom and human rights demonstrated by countries like Iran, or neighbors like North Korea.

Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani recently complained that the West was trying to bully Iran over its nuclear reprocessing plans. Yet the treatment Iran metes out to its own people hardly inspires anything but mistrust of its intentions. Reporters Without Borders ranked Iran 164th out of 167 countries for press freedom in its most recent report. Western music has been banned from state-run TV. Mr Rafsanjani may call Western criticism 'colonial', but if Iranian authorities jail or torture political opponents at home, this hardly suggests a propensity for peacefully resolving differences with other countries.

Likewise Kim Jong Il can hardly expect the trust or respect of the international community when his policies are directly responsible for the impoverishment of millions of his own people, an estimated 200,000 people are detained as political prisoners, and basic services are allocated on the basis of perceived political loyalties.

Thus concerns over Japan's constitution seem unwarranted when set against the gross restrictiveness and belligerent posturing of countries like North Korea and Iran. The idea that the Japanese people will suddenly develop a taste for errant militarism is far-fetched. However, having a powerful liberal democratic ally in Asia can only be a boon for both the US and the rest of the world. Instead of questioning Japan's return to the global military strategy, other nations should direct their concerns towards leaders who have shown a consistent disregard for their own people -- and through no coincidence are seen as most threatening to the international community.

Jason Miks is a Tokyo-based writer and Assistant Editor at the Center for International Relations.


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