President Donald Trump arrives in Japan at a pivotal moment in the nation’s history, as it debates changing its war-renouncing Constitution, a position favored by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who recently won strong majorities in both Houses of the Japanese Parliament which may allow him to pass such a measure. Although it would still need to be approved by popular referendum as well, a very important voice in the matter may very well be the American President. As that rare President who has surrounded himself with Generals in his administration, the prospect of Japan altering the Constitution bestowed on it by the leader of the U.S. Occupation, General Douglas MacArthur, may have the President asking a question about that General who towers over both American and Japanese history: “What Would MacArthur Do?”
It was MacArthur himself who came up with the original language, in concert with then Japanese Prime Minister Shidehara, that formed the basis of what would become Article IX of the Japanese Constitution. In his first draft, MacArthur wrote that Japan would renounce war as a means of settling disputes and included the line “even for preserving its own security,” but those six words were later dropped and Article IX came to read as follows:
“Aspiring sincerely to international peace based on justice and order, 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. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”
But as historian James Auer has noted, “MacArthur stated in his memoirs that the renunciation clause did not prevent 'any and all necessary steps for the preservation of the nation' and that, if attacked, Japan would have the right of self-defense,” and MacArthur further clarified the matter in 1950 when he directed the Japanese Prime Minister to create a 75,000 man force he euphemistically called the “National Police Reserve,” but which later became known as the Jieitai or Self Defense Forces.
Years later, when he was asked what MacArthur intended in terms of Japan’s ability to defend itself, one of the General’s aides, Colonel Charles Kades noted: "Even if they didn't have ammunition, they could fight with bamboo sticks, or something, but certainly they could defend themselves."
In 1955, the Japanese Cabinet issued a statement that noted that “the Constitution, while denouncing war, has not denounced war for self-defense .... to check armed attack in event of such an attack from outside is self-defense itself, and is entirely different from settling international disputes. Hence, the case of military power as a means of defending the nation when the nation has been attacked by military power is not counter to the constitution.”
Despite Japan’s stated commitment, first promulgated in 1967 to not possess, manufacture or allow nuclear weapons on its territory, there may be a case to be made that Japan can meet the nuclear challenge posed by North Korea without violating or altering its constitution.
In 1959, then Prime Minister Kishi declared that “the Government intends to maintain no nuclear weapons, but speaking in terms of legal interpretation of the Constitution there is nothing to prevent the maintaining of the minimum amount of nuclear weapons for self-defense.”
Kishi’s cabinet later noted that “in the event that an attack is waged with guided missiles and there are no other means of defense, counter attacks on enemy bases are within the scope of self-defense. With the right of self-defense retained as an independent nation, the Constitution does not mean for the nation to sit and do nothing and await its death.”
As an American growing up in Japan, it was not an uncommon experience to encounter enebriated Japanese men on the train or in the street who thanked us for what General MacArthur did for Japan. “Look at all of this,” I recalled the story of one in particular as he gestured wildly around a well lit Tokyo night, “this is all because of MacArthur.”
Although we can’t know conclusively how he’d view the challenges posed by Japan’s nuclear armed neighbors today, it’s a safe bet that he he’d want his successors to think long and hard before tampering with a document that he described in his memoirs as “probably the single most important accomplishment of the Occupation for it brought to the Japanese people freedoms and privileges which they had never known.”
Some have argued that the fact that the conversation about revising Japan’s Constitution is happening at all is because the Japanese have wondered, as a result of the neglect of the previous two administrations to nurture the relationship properly, whether the U.S. will truly come to its aid in the event of hostile actions by its neighbors.
As President Trump considers all of these things in deciding how and whether to weigh in with a Tweet or a comment on what is ultimately a decision to be made by the Japanese people, he may recall the most fundamental assumption in Japan's Constitution, later amplified by treaties, that the United States and Japan have a special relationship that was forged between a Japanese Emperor and an American General who sought to help a nation move beyond its militaristic past:
“After the United States leaves, who is going to protect Japan?” Emperor Hirohito was quoted asking MacArthur. In his characteristically flamboyant style, MacArthur responded: “Just as we protect California so shall we protect Japan.”