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Japan’s Constitutional Albatross

TOKYO – The approach of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II has sparked much discussion – and lamentation – of East Asia’s resurgent historical feuds. But recent tensions in the region may partly reflect a lack of progress in another, overlooked area: Japanese constitutional reform. Indeed, despite the powerlessness so vividly highlighted by the Islamic State’s beheading of two Japanese hostages, Japan has not adopted even one amendment to the “peace constitution” that the occupying American forces imposed on it in 1947.

At first glance, this may not be altogether surprising. After all, the constitution served an important purpose: by guaranteeing that Japan would not pose a military threat in the future, it enabled the country finally to escape foreign occupation and pursue rebuilding and democratization. But consider this: Germany adopted an Allied-approved constitution under similar circumstances in 1949, to which it has since made dozens of amendments.

Moreover, whereas Germany’s constitution, or Basic Law, authorized the use of military force in self-defense or as part of a collective security agreement, Japan’s constitution stipulated full and permanent relinquishment of “the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” Japan is the only country in the world bound by such restrictions – imposed not just to prevent a militarist revival, but also to punish Japan for its wartime government’s policies – and continued adherence to them is unrealistic.

That is why Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made constitutional reform a high priority. Having cemented his authority in December’s snap general election, in which his Liberal Democratic Party won a decisive victory, Abe is determined to pursue his goal of building a stronger, more competitive Japan – one that can hold its own against an increasingly muscular China.