JAPAN'S NEW PRIME minister, Junichiro Koizumi, came to power a month ago promising to rewrite his country's pacifist constitution to give Japan a real army.
America's deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, visiting Tokyo shortly afterward, hinted that Japan should rewrite the constitution and assume a greater military role in Asian security.
East Asia winces. Japan has offended its neighbors this spring by approving for middle-school use a history textbook that either ignores or minimizes the atrocities committed in China, Korea and elsewhere by Imperial Japan before and during World War II. Koizumi is pandering to his right wing by vowing to visit a military shrine honoring the period. In such a context, the talk of constitutional revision smacks of rising nationalism. East Asians remember with some bitterness Japan's last fling at playing a greater military role.
No doubt Koizumi has gladdened the unreconstructed hearts of some Japanese nationalists. And no doubt the United States has its own reason - containment of China - for urging Japan to be more active militarily in Asia. But there is also a liberal case to be made for rewriting the pacifist constitution as a step toward Japan's growing up and joining the community of "normal" nations.
Japan is not normal. It has been said that "Japan is an economic giant but a political pygmy." The same was once said of Germany: World War II deprived both countries of international legitimacy. The world wanted Japanese and German aid, trade and investment, but their political contributions could wait until the war aggressors were rehabilitated in the world's eyes. That has now happened for Germany, which is increasingly an agenda-setter as well as a paymaster for Europe. But it has not happened for Japan. What holds Japan back?
Some time ago the former German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, wrote some reflections on Japan. Because of its inability to come to terms with World War II, which would include acknowledging the crimes of Japanese imperialism, Japan not only "lacks friends all over the world," but "has no real foreign policy," Schmidt noted.
The contrast with Germany was unstated but obvious: Germany, having acknowledged the crimes of Nazism, had returned to the community of normal nations.
Schmidt wrote in 1974, nearly 30 years after the end of World War II and today, after nearly 30 more years, his analysis remains true. Japan has commercial interests that it pursues assiduously, sometimes to the exasperation of its trading partners. But it undertakes no initiatives and is identified with no policies beyond keeping a low profile and trying to appear agreeable.
It remains America's little brother, content to rely on American peacekeeping for security in Asia. But it assures the Chinese that "abstract human rights" aren't all that important. It tells the Chinese and Koreans that a little thing like textbooks shouldn't prevent neighbors from buying and selling. As Schmidt wrote, "Japan never showed that it understood other countries' criticisms. [It] chose to do nothing."
Japan's pacifist constitution is not the cause of the country's passivity, but it might be a symptom. The charter was written by Douglas MacArthur, commander of the U.S. occupying forces. Surely no other country voluntarily lives under a basic law dictated by its conqueror.
Nevertheless, the constitution and the occupation laws imposed on Japan had considerable advantages for the nation's recovery. They amounted to a revolution from above, imposed by a supreme authority, not a series of political compromises among competing interests. MacArthur knew what Japan needed, and he bestowed it: a free press, free labor unions and a democratically elected government with power divided between executive and legislative offices. No one is proposing to change any of this.
MacArthur also knew that Japan needed to break with its militaristic past. He provided that break in the constitutional provisions that renounced the right to make war and limited the armed forces to national defense. Japan's Asian neighbors have slept more easily the past half-century knowing that these restrictions were in place.
Then why change them? If constitutional pacifism has worked so well in keeping the Japanese out of trouble, perhaps it is time to encourage other countries, starting with the United States and China, to adopt pacifist constitutions.
A constitution is only a piece of parchment. A united people will do what it wants to do, and find a way to declare its actions consistent with its constitution. Japan already has an army larger than any in Asia but China's, and it outspends China on defense. All the constitution really does is declare that Japan is not fully sovereign. It lacks a right that other countries have, the right to make war.
Amending the pacifist portion of the constitution would restore full legal sovereignty to Japan. And with sovereignty would come the obligation to use it responsibly.