Japan’s Culture of Peace: Reflections on Constitutional Antimilitarism

Japanese professional baseball teams have kicked off their spring exhibition games. In February I attended a match between the Yomiuri Giants and Hiroshima Carp in southern Miyazaki Prefecture. For a sport so central to the collective identities of both Americans and the Japanese, the game I attended reminded me of how different our two cultures are. 

First, I noticed that I did not see a single uniformed police officer on the long walk from the far end of the parking lot to the outfield stands in the 30,000-seat stadium. There were no security officers at the ticket gate, and I was waved through without so much as a passing glance at the bag lunch I carried in.   

I also noticed that when the game began there was no military flyover, no paratrooper sailing in with the game ball, and no color guard flag ceremony. The Hinomaru flag was fluttering high above the scoreboard, banally signifying the nation, but no one seemed to notice and no anthem was sung. 

The flag and anthem are problematic in Japan. Symbols of the imperial era, the legislature recognized them as "official" in 1999 in order to enforce their compulsory use in school ceremonies. Despite their status, however, protests and lawsuits against compulsory school ceremonies continue even now on the grounds that forcing teachers and students to bow to the flag and sing the anthem violates the constitutional protection of "freedom of thought and conscience." 

A baseball game without an anthem? No color guard presenting the national flag? No sign of the security culture that pervades every American arena? This is what baseball looks like in a country where sports events are not rehearsals for nationalism and militarism. It is a sign that the Japanese still valorize the peace culture they developed after 1945.   

But a peace culture must be a pipe dream, right?  After all, as recently as 2008 Japan had the seventh highest military budget in the world – spending half as much as China and twice as much as South Korea. How can you have a peace culture when you have a military?  The answer is that you can’t, and the tension between the two has been the defining point of contestation in Japanese politics for more than sixty years. 

To be sure, contemporary Japanese militarism is different than militarism in the U.S. and other countries. First, the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) are not legally an army. Japan cannot have an army because the Constitution clearly states, "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained." If it were an army it would be "war potential" and unconstitutional.

So the SDF is not an army?  Well, empirically it is, but it is not according to the government. The state walks a tightrope. On one hand, it wants its army. On the other hand, it does not want to raise the ire of the Japanese public. The state learned its lesson back in 1960 when it rammed through the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security – the security agreement that allows the U.S. to maintain military bases in Japan to this day. 

Labor unions, women’s groups, parties of the Left, and citizens opposed the treaty; they wanted unarmed neutrality instead and rightly suspected that the treaty would undermine the war-renouncing constitution. Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke – a suspected "Class A" war criminal released by the Occupation without trial – forced the treaty through the legislature. His Liberal Democratic Party, set up just a few years before with financial aid from the CIA, would not let the U.S. down. 

The U.S. government, of course, has never been satisfied with the treaty or with the constitutional limits placed on the SDF. U.S. officials have repeatedly urged Japan to undermine or revise its war-renouncing Constitution. During the Cold War, they told Japanese officials to be realists and face the threat of the Soviets and Red China. After the Cold War, they told them to be realists and face the threat of North Korea and terrorists. But Japanese officials are realists; they are domestic realists. They know that a majority of the public has never been in favor of revising the peace plank of the Constitution. 

Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro, a close ally of President George W. Bush, pledged Japan’s assistance in the so-called war on terror and began setting the legislative groundwork for constitutional amendment. Alarmed by his maneuvers, nine public figures announced the formation of the Article Nine Association, named for the peace plank of the Constitution, and urged citizens to defend constitutional antimilitarism. By 2008 — just five years after their appeal — there were more than 7,000 autonomous Article Nine Associations (A9As) networking across the country. 

As evidence of the effectiveness of the A9As, public support for revision of Article Nine dropped from a high of 44 percent in 2004 and 2005 to a low of 31 percent by 2008. The government was able to pass legislation establishing the procedures for a national referendum on amendment, but the long-ruling LDP was swept out of power in 2009 and the push for revising Article Nine has temporarily subsided.  

On February 11th – just a week before the baseball game – I attended a meeting of the Miyazaki Prefecture A9A. Seventy-five citizens gathered for the two-and-a-half-hour forum. After breaking for lunch, we embarked on a Peace Walk through the downtown business district. The A9A regulars carried banners calling for the defense of Article Nine, and a leader explained the importance of constitutional antimilitarism through a megaphone. 

Many of the participants I spoke with that day said that they had been life-long supporters of Article Nine, but it was Prime Minister Koizumi’s push for constitutional revision that had spurred them to action. By reversing public opinion favoring revision and defeating the LDP, they said they asserted the sovereignty and rights granted to them in the Constitution. 

All democratic constitutions do two things. They enumerate rights, and they structure and delimit the power of government. These functions are often mutually reinforcing. In the Constitution of Japan, the first right mentioned is "the right to live in peace," a universal right "for all peoples of the world." In order to secure that right, the citizens of Japan pledged never again to allow "the horrors of war through the action of government." Article Nine makes that pledge operative by renouncing war as a sovereign right of the nation and prohibiting all "war potential." 

Of course it has been argued that the U.S. forced this Peace Constitution on Japan. That may be true, but Japan regained its sovereignty in 1952 and not once has it amended the Constitution. The primary reason for this is that the citizens of Japan have accepted and defended it as their own. While some credit Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru with using Article Nine and the Security Treaty as shields so Japan could focus on economic development, even if the government wanted to amend the constitution, the citizens would have prevented it from doing so. Japan’s is a citizen-centered peace. As history shows, the Japanese believe that peace is too important to be left to the state. 

But does constitutional antimilitarism only exist as political theory or does it have practical benefits? Consider that there are no military courts in Japan. SDF members who violate the law are subject to the civilian judiciary like everyone else. Without an army or military courts, the Japanese state cannot usurp civilian judicial authority, a tactic of authoritarian regimes and democracies alike. Consider, for example, the militarization of justice in the United States after 9/11. U.S. citizens were branded as "enemy combatants," stripped of their right to a lawyer, detained by the military indefinitely without charges, and subjected to inquisitional interrogation. Such measures are legally impossible in Japan.  

As for war, the Japanese state has no legal authority whatsoever to order Japanese citizens to kill the citizens of other countries or to give up their own lives by government command. For nearly seventy years, no Japanese soldier has killed another human being in war. And apart from noncombatant casualties during the Korean War, no Japanese have been killed in war. 

Constitutionally denying the state the authority to order citizens to sacrifice their lives "for the nation" short-circuits the logic of nationalism. Two of the main concerns of today’s Japanese nationalists are that there are not enough rehearsals for nationalism and that young people will not fight for their nation if it goes to war. For them, the antiwar slogan "What if they threw a war and no one came?" is a real concern. 

The World Values Survey, an international public opinion survey, includes the question: "Of course, we all hope that there will not be another war, but if it were to come to that, would you be willing to fight for your country?" In 2005, only 11.6 percent of Japanese respondents aged 15-29 answered, "Yes" – far fewer than the 49.9 percent of young respondents in the U.S. that gave the same answer. In more than thirty years of survey results the highest rate of "Yes" answers for Japanese young people was 17.9 percent (1981); the highest rate of "Yes" answers for American young people was 82.5 percent (1990).  Although the rates for adult respondents have been higher in both countries, there is a similar gap between the results for Japan and the U.S. 

While militarists see the low willingness to fight and Article Nine as a punishment for Japan’s "original sin," we can also read the results as evidence that the Japanese have widely embraced a culture of peace. That so few Japanese are willing to fight in war might reflect a belief that war is something distant, something unlikely to happen here, something that Japan has overcome; it is something that other countries do.  

Another explanation could be that the Japanese do, in fact, enjoy their "right to live in peace" and do not intend to sacrifice it on the altar of militarism. Having lived in Japan off and on for eight years, I have only met a handful of college-aged people who make such connections, but perhaps that is because the culture of peace is normal for them — so normal, perhaps, that they cannot imagine it being otherwise. This possibility occurred to me when a student of mine wrote on a quiz that the Declaration of Independence guaranteed the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of peace." Was it a wishful projection or evidence that "the right to live in peace" is so normal that it must be enjoyed by everyone – even Americans? When I tell people that as an American I don’t have "the right to live in peace," some are dumbfounded. 

Of course only a small number of U.S. citizens have come to realize that we, too, have a fundamental human right to live in peace (if only we can secure it), and it seems that the militarization of American culture will continue to prevent more from realizing it for some time. But on a sunny day in February the culture of peace was evident here in Miyazaki – if only in the absence of the rehearsals of nationalism and militarism that have become such a banal part of American culture. All that we did was enjoy two groups of grown men playing a game for the delight of the crowd. 

Author: Benjamin A. Peters

Benjamin A. Peters, Ph.D., is a political theorist at Miyazaki International College in Miyazaki, Japan and a former Summer Research Fellow at Stanford University's Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project. He can be reached at: bpeters [at] sky.miyazaki-mic.ac.jp.