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Abe’s Long March

TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s coalition government has decided to “reinterpret” the postwar Japanese constitution. According to Article 9 of the constitution, drafted by American lawyers in 1946, when Japan was under Allied occupation, Japan renounces “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” The new interpretation would allow Japan to use military force in support of an ally if Japanese security is under threat.

Abe chose to reinterpret the constitution because revising it would require the approval of two-thirds of the Japanese Diet. Given that most Japanese are still allergic to military force, securing the necessary votes would have been impossible.

The reinterpretation will almost certainly result in protests from China and South Korea against resurgent Japanese militarism. Because Abe is the nationalist grandson of a former prime minister who was once arrested as a war criminal, and because he has paid public tribute to soldiers who died for the emperor in World War II, these protests might seem reasonable.

Abe’s break with Japan’s pacifist consensus is beyond doubt. But the circumstances under which Japan would use force are so restricted that a revival of militarism is still a very long way off. More worrying is the effect on Japanese democracy: Elected governments do not simply change the meaning of the constitution without even bothering to get parliamentary support.