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Japan Divided On Revising World War II-Era Constitution


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Last week marked the end of fighting in the Pacific in World War II and Japan's surrender on what has become known as V-J Day. But many Japanese have never really accepted the terms of that surrender. They especially objected to the constitution forced on Japan by the Americans after the war.

Now, Japan's ruling party is calling for a revision to that constitution to boost the country's confidence and pride. Critics say, if approved by parliament, the revisions would be a major setback for Japanese democracy. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story from Tokyo.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrote a book in 2006 about his vision for his country. And in it, he makes it clear that he wants to overturn the post-war regime. He feels that the political values that the American occupation imposed are alien to Japan's traditions, including respect for the emperor. Many of Abe's views are shared by Satsuki Katayama, a lawmaker with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, and a drafter of the revised constitution.

SATSUKI KATAYAMA: (Through translator) We think it is necessary that the constitution's provisions on human rights reflect Japanese history, culture and traditions. Since there are provisions in the current constitution which appear to be based on Western theories of natural human rights, we think those provisions should be amended.

KUHN: But Katayama rejects criticism that the new document offers any less protection for citizens' basic rights.

KATAYAMA: (Through translator) We clearly state in the new constitution that we will respect human rights. The articles that concern basic human rights in the original constitution remain unchanged. Perhaps some extreme leftists may disagree, but I would say this constitution draft really respects human rights.

KUHN: Larry Repeta is a law scholar at Tokyo's Meiji University. He says that the new constitution would give the government sweeping powers in times of emergency and it would offset citizens' rights with more duties, such as placing public order ahead of their own individual liberties.

LARRY REPETA: The words of the constitution would say that individual rights are inferior to public order. And, of course, public order is maintained by the police. So, you know, this sort of idea would be inconceivable in the United States, for example, but that's specifically what they propose.

KUHN: In a sense, the very idea of a constitution was alien to Japan until the late 19th century. Japan became the first Asian nation to create a constitution and a parliament, but it did so primarily to meet the challenge posed by Western imperial powers. Japan's first constitution said that sovereignty belonged to the emperor, not to the people. So, Larry Repeta argues that the past 60 years have basically been an experiment in liberal democracy for Japan.

If the current constitution is revised, he says, that experiment could end.

REPETA: The LDP proposes to reverse that constitution and to change the relation between individuals and the state to much more what it was like before 1947, before 1945, and I believe that really carries a risk of unrestrained government.

KUHN: The current constitution is unique because in it, Japan gives up the right to wage war. The LDP would not change that. But the revised constitution would scrap restrictions on the nation's right to maintain a standing army. Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo's Sophia University, says that this puts the U.S. government in a bind. Washington would like Japan to assist it in its overseas military operations but...

KOICHI NAKANO: They are very afraid that revising the constitution today or Japan's taking more nationalistic stance in the international context is going to exacerbate the tension in the region. And so they are trying to put a brake on that.


KUHN: Japan's post-war era began on August 15th, 1945 when Emperor Hirohito delivered the radio address to what he called our loyal subjects. He announced Japan's surrender to the Allies just days after U.S. atomic bombs obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Former Deputy Prime Minister Yohei Kono says that if the U.S. and Japan's post-war alliance is to continue, it needs to be based on a shared understanding of history.

YOHEI KONO: (Through translator) Based on our experience of fighting and losing a war, it was at that time that our new constitution was drafted. But after 67 years, people have changed and the elderly have passed away. A new generation is coming up that doesn't know about the war. We shouldn't forget that feeling. We should pass it on.

KUHN: Actually, just a few short years after the U.S. government helped draft Japan's constitution, Washington began calling for it to be amended. The reason was that the U.S. needed Japan's help in the Cold War. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.