Amid North Korea Crisis, ABE Launches A Militarist Coup against Japan’s Constitution

Amid the North Korea crisis and stepped-up tensions with China, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced on May 3 plans for revision of Japan’s postwar Constitution for the first time since its inception 70 years ago. A revision of the Constitution with a rephrasing of the Article 9 (憲法第9条) peace clause is to come into effect by 2020, the same year as the Tokyo Olympics. Reflecting the 1964 Games when Japan re-emerged as Asia’s leading industrial power, the country will present itself just three years from now in a new light as a “normal” nation entrusted by the international community with a global security role, or in the Japanese mind as an Empire reborn.

The sanitized public-relations exercise, however, ignores the looming potential for Japan to engage more forcefully in resource-driven military actions as its “peacekeeping” missions have done in oil-rich Iraq and South Sudan. More ominously, Japan’s offensive posture in the ongoing Korean crisis, along with preemptive statements about hosting refugees from the North, is indicative of the ambition for yet another intervention in the Korean Peninsula, perhaps similar to how the NATO powers dismembered the Republic of Yugoslavia.

Abe’s plan to insert a clause defining the role of the Self-Defense Force (SDF自衛隊) into Article 9 will result in the deletion of the section, which categorically bans Japan from mustering any and all armed forces. While mere mention of the existing defense forces may seem innocuous to those unfamiliar with Japan’s past militarism, constitutional recognition of SDF would lead to increased defense spending, fueling an East Asian arms race, restoring the past role of Japan’s giant corporations such as Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, Kawasaki and IHI as major armaments producers, while possibly leading to armed skirmishes over disputed territory and an all-out invasion of a neighboring country. Japan’s disputes over islands contested by South Korea, China-Taiwan and Russia do not bode well for regional peace.

Constitutional revision could also open the Pandora’s Box of nuclear weapons for Japan, a topic already broached by President Donald Trump following the Abe administration’s covert nuclear cooperation with the Bush and Obama administrations, along with the UK, France and Israel. The prime minister appears eager to make the transition from atomic-bomb victim to joining the nuclear club, a short step that would erase any chance for regional denuclearization.

Words on paper do matter, and those few lines in print provide the only prevention against what Abe believes to be the inevitable. Article 9, importantly, has an iconic role in the Japanese political discourse, standing as it does against retrogression to the pre-1945 delusions of Empire.

Actions against the peace

The dilution of Article 9 by the Liberal Democrats began soon after the Constitution was promulgated in 1946, with formation during the Korean War of a special police force that evolved into the Self-Defense Force, participation in UN peacekeeping operations in the 1990s, and the recent collective security initiatives to expand the scope of the US-Japan Security Treaty. At this very moment, the world’s fourth-largest naval fleet is being deployed against North Korea by a nation that is not legally entitled to operate a single war vessel. The gap between constitutional law and rogue behavior could not be wider.

A master of persuasion and influence-peddling, Shinzo Abe has convinced many gullible American political leaders and Defense Department strategists to accept constitutional revision as necessary for Tokyo to realistically take on a greater share of the defense burden in the Western Pacific region. Meanwhile, his shrill warnings about Chinese military expansionism and the North Korean missile threat have heightened fears that have swayed a slight majority of Japanese citizens to support a stronger defense stance.

His seemingly unstoppable escalation in weaponry and alarmist drumbeat are aimed at numbing public opinion around the world to accept Japan as just another heavily armed military power. In geopolitical reality, however, a Japan that constantly portrays itself as a resource-poor nation, should be in no imminent danger from a foreign invasion since there’s little of substance to rob except paper money spewing out of the Bank of Japan.

A few words make a world of difference

The postwar Constitution of Japan is somewhat unique from those of other countries since it was imposed by the Allied Occupation and primarily written by American legal experts. This external guidance was necessary to break the oppressive grip of the 1887 Constitution of the Empire of Japan (大日本帝国憲法 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kenpō), which is better known as the Meiji Constitution. That law-setting document empowered and entitled an oligarchic elite and militarist officers who in their relentless drive for resource-rich territory caused the violent deaths of tens of millions of civilians across Asia and the Pacific, militarized Japanese society into a totalitarian war machine, and ultimately led to the stubborn, suicidal defeat that brought on the fire-bombing of major cities and two atomic cataclysms. What is written down on paper can have life-or-death consequences on a grand scale.

Therefore, in light of this record of inhumane brutality, Article 9 opens with the statement: “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as the sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”

While in principle, the warmonger Abe reviles this plea for peace, its deletion would result in majority opposition to any and all constitutional revision. Though only a remaining few elders experienced the war, their suffering is etched in family memorial gatherings and cannot be erased at the whim of corrupt drunkard politicians. Therefore Abe in his recent declaration, promised to retain the peace statement. As George Orwell pointed out, however, the word peace is easily subverted to mean the very opposite.

Therefore Abe aims to insert a clause mentioning the important role of the Self-Defense Force. This addition would automatically annul and replace the second section of Article 9 that states: “In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, along with other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

As it has stood for the past 70 years, the Constitution unambiguously forbids the creation and operation of anything resembling the Ground, Air and Maritime Self-Defense Forces of Japan. The ever-expanding SDF is unconstitutional and therefore Abe needs to delete that second section. It takes a suspension of disbelief to consider disciplined groups of weapon-wielding combatants in uniform under a national flag as not being an armed force. The fact is: the majority of the Diet have lost any sense of reality from consuming too much alcohol in the company of rightist gangsters, bankers and lobbyists for the major defense corporations. The military force that does not exist must be powerful enough to defeat the North Korean army and the Chinese navy, kampai!

Therefore, Abe wants to bring his parliamentary mates back to their senses by acknowledging the existence of the Army, Navy and Air Force of Japan, and for that, the Constitution must undergo drastic surgery.

Japan's PM Abe reviews members of JSDF during the JSDF Air Review to celebrate 60 years since the service's founding at Hyakuri air base in Omitama

Reviving the Oligarchy

The drafters of the 1947 Constitution anticipated that die-hard militarists would attempt a comeback under the pretext of homeland defense against foreign military threats. Therefore Article 9 does not distinguish between defensive wars and overseas aggression. Practically every foreign war ever incited in human history has been misrepresented as “defense” of family, home, blood and soil. Fear of the invader, though he may be an innocent lad thousands of kilometers away, is essential for the hysterical propaganda that convinces voters to support the war effort and mothers to offer up their sons to the generals and admirals as cannon fodder.

Abe’s attempt to insinuate the Self-Defense Force into Article 9 is an attempt to replicate how the armed forces were represented in the militarist 1887 Meiji Constitution.

Article 11. The Emperor has the supreme command of the Army and Navy.
Article 12. The Emperor determines the organization and peace standing of the Army and Navy.
Article 13. The Emperor declares war, makes peace, and concludes treaties.
Article 14. The Emperor declares a state of siege.

In the operating system of an imperial enterprise, the term “Emperor” does not simply mean the monarch as an individual. Rather, the term stood for several control centers related to the monarchy, the most powerful being his executive advisers in the Privy Council (枢密院, sumitsu-in), which included ranking military officers, prime ministers, high bureaucrats linked with the major defense corporations, and a few adventurous aristocrats. The ruling council was itself closely networked with senior oligarchs in the Ministries and military strategists in the Army’s General Staff. The actual authority of the Emperor himself tended to be tightly constrained by those interlinked political relationships, making him a captive of his own system, tasked with affirming what has been decided by insiders.

The gilded cage continues to this day, albeit in a significantly changed political system, with the man who serves as Emperor unable to express his own opinion other than obliquely and very rarely. Thus,
the controversy over the planned resignation of Emperor Akihito (明仁) is part of a cloaked yet dramatic struggle between the Imperial Household Agency (宮内庁kunai-cho) and the Prime Minister’s office over changes to the Constitution. In retirement, His Highness would have fewer constitutional restraints and therefore a degree of influence over national policy, whereas his princely successor would be limited to endorsing whatever the Diet and Prime Minister decide.

In light of this smoldering conflict between a pacifist emperor and the warmongering prime minister, the 2020 deadline for constitutional revision gains even greater significance. While Abe attempts to resurrect an all-powerful oligarchic policy center, the soon-retiring emperor will seek to keep Japan faithful to the postwar vision of a pacifist nation.

Given this clash of wills at the highest echelon, it is vitally important now to rally public opposition in Japan and step up foreign criticism against Abe’s proposed constitutional revision. Time is of the essence and each hour of every day matters to block the path to war and put the would-be dictatorship on the highway to hell.

Obscure Dimensions of Constitutional Law

In spite of its supreme importance to any nation’s political life and foreign policy, constitutional law is not a mandatory course in public education and therefore remains outside the consciousness of most citizens in most countries. The intricacies of the legal system and their relationship to the political set-up become all the more opaque in hybrid systems, especially in Asia where Western-type constitutions have been overlaid atop traditional Asian political systems, legal norms and cultural values.

Yet it precisely at this ill-fitting juncture of law and ethics, West and East, that we can begin to comprehend why Japan’s Supreme Court has utterly failed to challenge the Abe regime’s attempt to subvert and overthrow the postwar Constitution. The Supreme Court of Japan (最高裁判所 saiko-saibansho) has rarely ever addressed constitutional issues, by some counts on only eight occasions. Its silence tends to reinforce the interests of the state rather than the rights of aggrieved individuals or persecuted groups. Judiciary favoritism toward an all-powerful state is partly due to the domination of the legal profession by graduates of the elitist University of Tokyo law faculty.

Traditional ethics and law, however, have also retarded judicial reform in Japan. The higher courts have traditionally been the institution most resistant to democratic ideals introduced during the Meiji Restoration and the Allied Occupation. Supreme Court decisions remain inaccessible for public review or even by attorneys arguing cases before the court. The highest judicial body has consistently failed to challenge the Education Ministry’s overbearing authority in setting curriculum, state support for Shinto rites, the state’s covert nuclear-weapons program, and the constitutionality of the armed forces. By making these controversies as off-limits, the Supreme Court has reinforced the trend back toward militarism.


The Supreme Court’s conservatism, in a historical perspective, is rooted in the Legalist school of philosophy (法家). This little-known fact was disclosed on the most famous trial in Japanese history, the case of the 47 Ronin (四十七士, only 46 faced prosecution since one was a helpful merchant and not a samurai). The revenge assassination of an high official in the Third Shogun’s court has been popularly celebrated as a just action affirming Confucian notions of virtuous loyalty, since their lord, from the small domain of Ako (赤穂), had been humiliated in a capricious and forced to commit suicide on trumped-up charges.

Contravening the social code of feudalism, the seppuku (切腹 forced slitting of one’s own midriff) ruling against his loyal retainers was based on the Legalist interpretation that the drawing of a sword by the Ako lord against a shogunate official was tantamount to an assault against the state, which had special protection under law as well as a monopoly on violence. It was a watershed argument in the development of both the rule of law and theories of the supremacy of the state, the beginning of the end of Confucianism in Japan. Without the glue of virtue, from then on the political struggle was based on power, and thus over many crises arose the steely force of the Restoration, and with it the first constitution.

The Abe Cabinet’s state secrets protection law (特定秘密の保護に関する法律), which requires no disclosure of a specific charge against defendants and metes out mandatory prison sentences, is a vestige of the Legalist notion of supremacy of the state against dissenting individuals regardless of the ethical merit or public benefit of the actions of whistleblowers and investigators. No exceptions are made, even in the context of a massive illegal cover-up as has been happening with the covert plutonium-extraction program that largely accounts for the meltdowns at Fukushima. Law is for the defense of the state and not for protection of society.

From Potsdam to Tokyo, Shimonoseki to World War II

This authoritarian attitude is as foreign as night and day to the democratic sentiments of the drafters of the postwar Constitution, assembled by Charles Kades, deputy chief of the government section of the Supreme Command Allied Powers (SCAP), the occupation headquarters. SCAP commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur was under strict Allied orders to enforce the Potsdam Declaration of August 1945, which included the statement: “There must be eliminated for all time, the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest, for we insist that a new order of peace, security and justice will be impossible until irresponsible militarism is driven from the world.”


Truer words have never been said. The showman Shinzo Abe’s nonchalant readiness to sell, lie, misrepresent and cheat is based on an amoral mindset that accepts the armaments race, belligerent aggression, first-strike capability and falsified propaganda as necessary to the program of national strength advocated by his provincial hero Shoin Yoshida (吉田松陰), the pioneering visionary behind Meiji Japan’s military expansionism.

Abe’s home ground is Yamaguchi Prefecture ( (山口県), formerly known as Choshu domain (長州藩), a fount of rightist violence, militarist brutality, false-flag operations and gangsterism. His political constituency is at the southwest tip in the port of Shimonoseki. The city is the historic site of the April 1895 signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki (下関条約), ending the First Sino-Japanese War. The defeated Qing Dynasty was forced to ceded the Liaotung Peninsula (Dalian) and Taiwan, while recognizing nominal independence for Korea, the first step toward colonization by Japan. That “glorious” moment of conquest is indelibly etched in Abe’s morally deficient brain.

The origins of rightist militarism lie deeper in his native soil, in the Choshu domain’s castle town of Hagi (萩市), where military “otaku” (obsessive fanatic) Shoin Yoshida taught at his uncle’s private school called the Shoka sonjuku (松下村塾). There, as a tutor, Yoshida indoctrinated students from low-ranking samurai families to emulate the Western colonial powers in striving for the rapid development of technologically advanced weapons systems so that Imperial Japan might overturn the unequal treaties to take its rightful place among the Great Powers.

In clan rivalry and anti-shogunate alliance with the egalitarian idealists of the Restoration radicals fromTosa (土佐国now Kochi, Shikoku island) and Satsuma ((薩摩藩Kagoshima, Kyushu), Yoshida’s disciples would emerge as the founding fathers of absolutism, militarism and colonialism:

– Hirobumi Ito (伊藤博文) , the drafter of the Meiji Constitution of 1887, prime minister and resident supervisor of the Korean protectorate;
– Takayoshi Kido (木戸 孝允), founder of the Meiji state bureaucracy; and
– Aritomo Yamagata (山縣 有朋), war minister in the Sino-Japanese War, general in the Russo-Japanese War, head of the General Staff, prime minister, and president of the all-powerful Privy Council.

In the footsteps of Bismarck

Ito and Kido were members of the two-year Iwakura Mission (岩倉使節団) that journeyed to the United States and Europe. Launched in 1871, their objectives was to initiate renegotiation of unequal treaties signed by the since-deposed shogunate and to gather information toward Japan’s modernization. On their travels, the group examined the constitutions of different Western countries.

The ideal model for Japan they settled on was the authoritarian Prussian Constitution of 1850, which reflected the interests of the monarchy, the Juncker military elite and industrial capitalists while grudging recognizing the rights of commoners. Their stay in Germany coincided with General Otto von Bismarck’s stunning victory in the Franco-German War and the declaration of the Second Reich (Empire) under Kaiser Wilhelm I. Germany’s achievements in battle, seizure of a huge war indemnity, its industrial strength, strict laws and monarchism perfectly fit the aspirations of these men who would become Japan’s new oligarchs.

Needless to say, the Prussian Constitution of 1850 promulgated by King Frederick Wilhelm was a model of militarist absolutism and, in the wake of the failed 1848 Revolution, an instrument of domestic political repression.
Article 46: The king shall be commander-in-chief of the army.
Article 47: The king shall fill all posts in the army, as well as in other branches of the public service
Article 48: The king shall have power to declare war and make peace, and to conclude other treaties with foreign governments.

The Japanese statesmen thereby came to the conclusion that centralized authority would provide the smoothest path to Great Power status. Despite Germany’s early successes against less-vigilant nation-states, however, this sort of linear thinking led to hubris and overestimation of technology in warfare. Rival nations, especially England, understood the combined power of international alliances and that scientific innovation could bypass and overcome brute-force weaponry.

Thus the German Empire, which mimicked the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, was traumatically shattered, its death song penned by Rilke. Then like a monstrous fire-bird, it was reborn as the Third Reich and again it perished in flames, and quietly returned as a shadow of its former self in NATO. It is a terrible irony of history, then, that Hirobumi Ito took this karmic-bound phoenix to be the model for modern Japan, doomed to be likewise reduced to ashes. Now the ambitious heir of the Choshu zealots stands ready to do it again, although costumed like Super Mario at the Rio Olympics.

The whimsy of karma

In movies, animations and NHK history dramas, the conservative founders of modern Japanese power are glamorized with an romantic aura and heroic dimensions, whereas in fact their heinous deeds and suppression of the Japanese public and brutality against foreign peoples put their policies into a special class of crimes against humanity. By modeling their experiment in modernity after the West, the great reformers accepted the duality of the West, plunging the isolated country to its first foreign conquests and secularizing its shamanic imperial tradition. That contemporary Asia bears the image of the model that they wrought is disturbing and ominous, a Damocles sword looming over our heads.

In spite of its legal protections for the militarist oligarchy, Ito’s draft of the Meiji Constitution was not simply a warmongering and repressive document but an attempt to establish an alternative to the caste-based feudal system of the shogunate and the domains offering fundamental rights to the new citizens, who before the Restoration were not even permitted to have surnames. Ito and his fellow restorationists attempted to build a humanist polity inclusive of the newly emergent electorate.

In his more idealistic moments, Ito envisioned the Empire not as a prison of nations but as a family, with a paternalistic Japan nurturing and teaching its children, and this essentially Confucian notion provided the silk robe that clothed the heartless Western automaton that was industrial Japan. Likewise, Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi (岸 信介) established such a utopia in wartime Manchukuo(滿洲國) , where the different races of northeast Asia were supposed to find kinship and happiness together under a benevolent Japanese tutelage. It was promoted at the response to Western racism, never mind the massacres and robbery of the local population on the other side of the duality.

Ito was especially fearful of political parties serving as platforms for populist agitators, as he had learned in Europe soon after the Paris Commune had to be crushed by the Prussian army. He had good reason to be afraid, for the mild democratic reforms introduced by his constitution had at least taught some men and women to think for themselves. In the cold autumn breeze of October 1909, after leaving his post as the resident supervisor of the benevolent protectorate that smothered Korea, and while the peninsula was being transformed into a militarized colony, Ito was shot to death at Harbin Railway Station by a Korean patriot. (In rulings of the Supreme Court of Japan, fratricide is treated as the worst of all criminal violations.)

His social-political model, called the kokutai (国体 national body or polity), was an attempt to hearken back to a Confucian relationship between a fatherly elite and childlike commoners moderated by a large bureaucracy, those teachers of the new society. This mutuality established the patronage habits that still dominate Japanese party politics. The crass lewdness of business and politics needs to be covered over, however. Thus the cosmetic summoning of the superficial gloss of traditional customs, which attracts Asians and westerners to Japanese “culture”, with its daintiness in every polite detail.

Lost in transition

The contemporary Japanese are still lost in a political cloud somewhere between the benevolent hierarchical order of the copy of the 1887 “Prussian” Constitution and the individual freedoms promised by the postwar “American” Constitution. Yet,in their hearts, they possess neither benevolence nor freedom. Class compromise has only meant popular must consent to their own oppression, a pitiable condition now seen in how the majority of Japanese meekly accept the radioactive contamination streaming out of Fukushima and suffer the lack of any compensation for losses, bearing their misery with little complaint.

Bureaucratic Japan must therefore cover over the horror of widespread genetic mutation and the coming wars with a shiny rainbow over Tokyo, the Olympic Games of 2020, a gathering of the global family. For the Japanese polity, that spectacle promises to be a national apotheosis with the restoration of honor to brave soldiers and sailors in a veritable restoration of a Constitution fit for an empire. In other eyes, the desperate desire for glory is another symptom of a social psychosis.

An ethical life

In contrast to his fellow alumni from Shoin’s Shoka Sonjuku, Kido began to realize that a Japan hobbled by the subservient attitudes and class disadvantages of feudalism was both materially deficient and intellectually impoverished, and perhaps ill-suited, to rival the Western Powers, and therefore for pragmatic reasons he opposed the invasions of Korea and Taiwan. He died of chronic illness while his old comrade in the Restoration struggle, Takamori Saigo ( (西郷 隆盛), committed suicide during his failed Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 ( (西南戦争 Seinan Senso, Southeast War), which is the historical basis of the movie “The Last Samurai”.

Without the intervention of ethics-based dissent and political action, history is amoral and life can be capricious. The most murderous of that great trio, the arrogant and reactionary warhorse Yamagata, lived to a ripe old age and in retirement became a notable designer of Japanese gardens. As War Minister, Yamagata had co-authored Emperor Meiji’s Imperial Rescript to Military Personnel (軍人勅諭), partially quoted here:

“Remember that, as the protection of the state and the maintenance of its power depend upon the strength of its arms, the growth or decline of this strength must affect the nation’s destiny for good or for evil; therefore neither be led astray by current opinions nor meddle in politics, but with single heart fulfill your essential duty of loyalty, and bear in mind that duty is weightier than a mountain, while death is lighter than a feather.”

His deceptive patriotism employs the moral tone of Confucian teaching but cleverly substituted“duty” and “obedience” to authority instead of the traditionally esteemed “virtue” resident in the moral universe of an individual despite his social position or wealth, or lack thereof. Yamagata, for all his victories, failed to win life’s greatest struggle, which is to be virtuous. During the Chinese national resistance against Japanese occupation, Mao Zedong paraphrased the same classic quote from the ancient historian Sima Qian (司馬遷): “To die for the people is weightier than Mount Tai, but to work for the fascists and die for the exploiters and oppressors is lighter than a feather.”

Even if in the real world the good guys don’t always win the battle as was expressed in Kurosawa’s masterpiece The Seven Samurai, 七人の侍 (“the only winners are the peasants”), that each of us decides how to live and for what to die, these are the only choices that truly matter.


Yoichi Shimatsu, Senior Advisor and Contributing Editor for The 4th Media, was former editor with The Japan Times group. He’s well-known as a science and investigative journalist who has conducted 12 research journeys into the Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone since April 2011.

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