TCS Daily

Nippon to Stand Alone?

By Jason Miks - March 23, 2006 12:00 AM

TOKYO -- Sixty years after the US occupation drafted a new constitution for Japan, the relationship between the two countries is proving as crucial, yet as complex as ever. With the over-whelming rejection by locals of a proposal to shift US forces to a base in Iwakuni, and the strong criticism which the government's approach drew from the leading opposition party, the likely re-writing of war-renouncing Article 9 is likely to prove more complicated still.

Re-writing the article was already the most hotly debated, and closely watched, feature of the constitution, but it will continue to take on added significance as Japan continues to grapple with its identity and its place in the world.

Indeed it is this article which perhaps best encapsulates the intensity and mixed feelings between the two nations, and also indicates where America will have to tread most carefully in the future.

Back when the constitution was drafted, Japan was emerging from a costly war -- both in lives and resources -- which the international community felt it had brought upon itself through aggressive expansion in Asia. But since those uncertain days, the country's status has changed dramatically. Indeed, a recent BBC poll showed it to be the world's most respected nation and it is the second largest contributor to the United Nations budget.

With this in mind, any rewriting of Article 9 should be viewed as being in Japan's own interests and the US cannot be seen to be interfering. The possibility of such a perception was all too evident last October with the release of the Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) draft constitution coming just a day before a Ministry of Foreign Affairs document was issued detailing closer military co-operation between the US and Japan. The plans included a proposal for US forces to share bases with the Self Defence Force, but the risk is that the issue of realignment in the Pacific and constitutional revision will appear too closely bound up together.

To ensure that changes are Japanese-led, therefore, the LDP has to follow through on pledges to engage and consult with opposition parties and the public on any changes. This will mean some tough decisions as many are opposed to any revision at all. But the LDP should not foist a constitution on the people in the way that Prime Minister Kishi tried to do with the US-Japan security alliance in 1960, a decision which led to much civil unrest and the cancelling of a proposed visit by President Eisenhower.

The difficulties of the situation have been underscored by the recent non binding plebiscite in Iwakuni where voters, on a more than fifty per cent turn out, opposed a proposed US move there as part of its realignment. There is almost certainly a sense of 'not in my backyard' and Prime Minister Koizumi may well be right when he says that any area would reject such a plan. But that does not mean that the concerns of the citizens should be dismissed out of hand and the LDP should pause and reflect on the results to see if more can be done to take account of local's wishes. Democratic Party of Japan leader Seiji Maehara was right in pointing out last week that the Prime Minister's first duty is towards its citizens and that pushing the issue too hard could "cause an extremely serious problem and consequently this might lead to cracks opening in the Japan-US alliance."

Yet this debate merely serves to underscore the centrality of the US-Japanese partnership to both countries, which some observers felt had been sidelined with attention on the Middle East. Aside from the obvious trade benefits the two have much else to offer each other and Japanese co-operation on counter terrorism through the Container Security Initiative, has been invaluable in securing container shipments. Indeed the importance of this issue has come into even sharper focus with the debate over the Dubai port deal.

However it is in both countries' interest that the relationship be viewed as more equitable than it has in the past, and this may mean some awkward disagreements, including over security. Prime Minister Koizumi and President Bush have managed to work together constructively, but it will be interesting to see if this close working relationship survives the leadership change in Japan due in September.

Most people expected that Japan would by now have amended its constitution -- it was after all penned in under a week. That they have not, and that many Japanese now oppose any changes at all perhaps reflects a sometimes different -- but still in many ways fundamentally similar -- shared democratic spirit.

Sixty years ago a traumatised Japan needed a hand to guide it from its war ravaged state, but what was good for a time of crisis is no longer so necessary. The Japanese people are able to make up their own mind now, and the country's leaders should make sure they let them.

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


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