Koizumi's Twin Constitutional Challenges

Japan's reformist Prime Minister must overturn post-war restrictions that hamper both political integrity and an independent military policy

By Brian Bremner

Given Japan's dire economic prospects, you'd think constitutional reform would be somewhere in the lower realms of new Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's to-do list. Fixing the banks, sure. Crafting a workable plan of multiyear spending cuts to fix Japan's world-class budget deficit, absolutely. Revising the constitution?

Well, yes. And I think Koizumi has latched on to an important issue that not only is key to busting up Japan's faction-ridden politics but that cuts to the whole issue of what sort of society Japan aspires to be. Japan's post-war constitution, essentially dictated by U.S. Occupation authorities in 1947 after the devastation of the Pacific War, does have some glaring defects. And you don't need to be a constitutional scholar to see why.

The two biggest flaws involve the way prime ministers are chosen and the controversial Article 9, which stipulates: "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." Koizumi has linked these two issues, which may seem odd given that one touches on political reform while the other is the essence of Japan's national-security policies.


  Yet not really. In a way, both explain why Japan, with few exceptions, has had a run of very ineffectual prime ministers in the post-war era. Part of the problem was the leaders' weird symbiotic relationship with the U.S. and Cold War priorities. Washington pretty much dictated Japan's foreign policy and looked out for its security interests in the region.

For decades, the ruling and long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party focused on Japan's economic advancement and wealth-distribution politics at home. During the nation's stellar economic growth through much of the Cold War, the system worked pretty well, more or less. Yes, money politics eventually undermined the political system, but it didn't seem to do much damage.

Then the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989, Japan's speculative bubble burst, and stagnation gripped the economy during the 1990s. Suddenly, Japan's weak leadership mattered greatly. But instead of a dynamic leadership, Japan merely produced a series of revolving-door prime ministers who couldn't shape a coherent set of policies to move the country forward.


  One key reason is that most of them were the products of backroom deals by LDP elders who were in charge of the biggest factions and looking out for their big business backers. Structural reform would mean economic pain for the most well-connected and, in many cases, inefficient industries. And a premier who departed too much from the LDP's playbook would not last long.

On top of that, just about every year, there would be a Cabinet overhaul to distribute big prestigious jobs to party loyalists. That meant precious little continuity -- and promising deregulation ideas were often crushed in the cradle.

Koizumi wants to smash this whole system, and not for purely altruistic reasons. He's a reformer who vaulted to the premier's chair almost entirely on his public popularity. For now, the LDP's big-faction leaders need him as a front man to prevent a real thrashing during this summer's upper-house elections in the Diet. But even if Koizumi somehow pulls that off and keeps his job, the fact remains that without a mandate from the public, he still has to cut deals with the factions to some degree to get anything done. A prime minister directly elected by the public would give future Japanese leaders the power to actually lead, instead of looking out for the long knives.


  Similarly, plenty have argued that Japan won't produce strong pols until it becomes a normal nation -- that is, one that not only tends to economic prosperity for its citizens but looks out for their security interests, too. That's why Koizumi is also angling for constitutional changes that would recognize Japan's right to use military force to protect itself from regional threats.

Critics at home and abroad are screaming that such a move would invite a reprise of the 1930s and runaway Japanese militarism. I have a hard time imagining an industrialized and democratic Japan going on another land grab in Asia. Moreover, Koizumi isn't a nut who wants to take Japan nuclear and draw the wrath of China while scaring the wits out of its friends in the region.

Nor is he an ultranationalist, who would sever ties to the U.S. If anything, given the ascendant power of China in the region, he wants to recognize Japan's right to a functioning military so that it would dovetail better with U.S forces on Japan and strengthen the US-Japan security alliance.


  Can Koizumi realize any of these grand goals? While the opinion polls are divided, plenty of Japanese think the constitution deserves an overhaul though the idea of dropping the war-renouncing Article 9 language is extremely controversial. Steering that through the Diet and getting ordinary Japanese to go along in a national referendum would be a monumental test of political leadership.

But, then again, that's the point. Leading means sketching a vision for where Japan should be heading. And a Japan where voters have a say in who sits in the premier's chair and defends its interests in a credible way isn't a bad one for Koizumi to pursue.

Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BW Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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