When Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, visits President Obama in Washington later this month, he will come bearing a special souvenir from Japan. It will be a death certificate, one that reads "Japan's Peace Constitution R.I.P." Despite overwhelming public opposition, at around 2 AM Saturday morning Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party rammed through legislation designed to unleash the nation's military might.
The "gift" is likely to bring a smile to Obama's face. Over the past few decades American officials have lamented the constitutional constraints that have tied Japan's hands in providing the US with military support. Beating at the pacifist heart of Japan's constitution is its Article 9 which states, "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." That Article 9 has continually stopped Japan's defense forces dead in their tracks whenever it has come to joining U.S. forces with boots on the ground.
That all changed in the wee hours of Saturday morning when legislators hastily passed new laws skirting that provision. Japan's fighting forces now have the green light to battle shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. in armed conflicts potentially anywhere around the world. That should come as good news to the U.S. as its military gets stretched thinner and thinner in an ever widening war on terrorism. While American's might be happy to dance on Article 9's grave, we ought to give pause for just a minute and think about what has passed.
Essentially drafted and imposed by a victorious U.S. in the wake of WWII, the Japanese constitution is "one of the few if any alien documents that have ever been as thoroughly internalized and vigorously defended," writes historian John Dower. No ordinary document, you could say this set of laws was penned with the blood of over a hundred thousand American GIs who died in WWII's Pacific theater along with countless Japanese soldiers and citizens.
Today the emotional attachment to that unique American document is visible on the faces of tens of thousands of Japanese citizens, both young and old, who have been pouring into the streets surrounding Japan's national Diet building in opposition to the new laws. In the week before the laws were passed there had been a constant tide of people flowing through the capitol in peaceful protest to the Abe administration's bulldozing of a foundation of peace that has stood for nearly three quarters of a century. The massive outpouring is but a small representation of the majority across this island nation that is squarely opposed to what have been dubbed "the war laws." According to a recent poll by the Asahi newspaper, one of Japan's top three dailies, the country is unevenly split with 54% against enactment of the laws and a mere 29% for it. Numbers don't lie but they appear to be no match for political machinations that trump the machinery of democracy.
While time has healed the wounds of WWII for most Americans, memories of that bloody conflict remain raw in the Japanese psyche. Forged by a burning desire for peace in the smoldering fires of that great conflagration, Japan's democratic government is being quickly dismantled before the public's eyes. The question now is: when Mr. Abe hands President Obama his special gift, what will be his response? Will our leader smile in appreciation as he stands in the shadow of the graves of the brave men and women who died for American as well as Japanese democracy on the battlefields of the Pacific not that long ago? Perhaps those departed souls are owed more than that for their sacrifice. Maybe we should start paying down the debt we owe by refusing to stand in silence as Japan's ruling political party drives democracy into the ground.
While casting his "no" vote in Japan's Upper House, one opposition party member shouted out in defiance, "the fight has just begun." Today a battle that began more than seven decades ago seems to be far from over. The difference is Americans now have a chance to stand with the majority of Japanese citizens who are standing up for democracy. It would be a shame to let them down now after all these years.