Japan’s ruling party may have dropped a pledge to “never wage war again”—and that isn’t even the worst of it

Japan’s “self defense” forces.
Japan’s “self defense” forces.
Image: Reuters/Issei Kato
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Chinese commentators have been in a frenzy this week over reports that Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has removed a promise to “never to wage war again” from the party’s campaign platform. The LDP, which voted Jan. 19 on the platform, has not confirmed the reports, but a final draft reviewed in early January eliminated the phrase.

Any changes wouldn’t immediately change Japan’s pacifist constitution, in place since the end of World War II, but prime minister Shinzo Abe has called for taking a broad interpretation of the document’s relevant passage, article 9, which states:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order,the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

Last year, Abe called for Japan to employ “active pacifism” that would enable it to use its “self defense forces” to help an ally under attack. Abe said this month he is pushing for amending the constitution itself before 2020. Japan, whose navy is already four times larger than Britain’s, was one of the world’s top five military spenders in 2012 and has long had the technology to build nuclear weapons. A new nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant for civil use in northern Japan is capable of producing nine tons (8.16 tonnes) of plutonium or enough to produce up to 2,000 bombs a year (paywall).

Despite the furore over the “no war” clause in the party platform, there are even broader changes afoot in the LDP’s platform that could have a chilling effect on Japanese society.

What would change if the constitution is revised, according to critics, is the the protection of Japanese civil rights, specifically free speech. The LDP’s draft proposal for the constitution, published in 2012, includes measures that censure protected rights like freedom of expression and assembly. To article 12 of the current constitution—which says: “Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed”—the LDP proposes adding, “Notwithstanding the foregoing, engaging in activities with the purpose of damaging the public interest or public order, or associating with others for such purposes, shall not be recognized.” (Here’s an abbreviated version in English and a complete draft in Japanese.)

Already, late last year, Japan  unveiled a law granting the government sweeping powers over what it can deem a state secret and who can be convicted for leaks—a measure that could damage press freedom and whistle-blowing. Other revisions proposed by the LDP include giving parliament authority to declare a state of emergency across the country and replacing fundamental human rights with those that “reflect the history, culture and tradition of Japan.”

A strong strain of anti-militarism among the public has been an important brake for Japan’s more aggressive officials. An erosion of the Japanese public’s voice may be the true danger to peace in the region.