Expert Interview – Lars Vargö on Japan’s Constitutional Reinterpretation of Article 9

In a landmark decision, the Japanese parliament voted last month to reinterpret Article 9 of the country’s “peace” constitution. Lars Vargö, former Swedish ambassador to Japan and South Korea, provides his perspective on the implications of the controversial reinterpretation and what it means for Japan’s military role.

Japan’s reinterpretation of Article 9 has been viewed in some quarters as “remilitarization” which invokes fears of its past wartime aggression. But, in concrete terms, what does it actually entail?

The Japanese constitution of 1947 was mainly written by the allied occupational authorities, although the proposal to include an article renouncing war was actually suggested by Japanese Prime Minister Shidehara Kijûrô in early 1946. The constitution as a whole reflected the post-war currents of the time, but it did not take long before most decision-makers realized that using war as a method to solve international disputes is one issue, and to maintain an up-to-date defense in order to deter potential aggression from outside forces is another. The threats to regional stability posed by the Korean War of 1950-53 made it necessary to interpret the constitutional restraints in a more flexible way and allow for the formation of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.

Today’s reinterpretation should be seen in the light of the fact that the constitution has never been amended. Therefore, seventy years after the end of World War Two, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his supporters see it as high time for Japan’s military “normalization.” Importantly, however, Article 9 ends with the phrase that “the right of the belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” In other words, Japan shall not be allowed to again threaten its neighbors by using military force. The latest reinterpretation does not alter that fact, but it does allow Japan to defend itself in cooperation with other allies. And it also allows Japan to come to the rescue of allies under threat or attack by means of “collective self-defense.” I think, in practical terms, this would mainly consist of support, such as providing refueling services to U.S. war planes taking off from bases in Japan. I don’t think anyone envisages, for instance, Japanese combat troops actively engaging on the Korean Peninsula. Accordingly, to call this “remilitarization” is to go too far, in my view, but one needs of course to be attentive to changes in the official rhetoric.


China has become more assertive in the region in recent years as evidenced by its actions in the South China Sea and its establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Can Japan’s actions also be seen as a direct response to China’s rise?

Ever since the Chinese Revolution of 1949, not to mention the Cold War, Japan has been following Chinese political developments with great care. The normalization of bilateral relations in 1972 and the conclusion of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978 created a very positive atmosphere. When the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said “let bygones be bygones,” the future of bilateral relations appeared brighter. However, it is a fact that some politicians in Japan have wished to paint a more forgiving picture of Japan’s militaristic past, thereby giving Chinese politicians an “open field” where they can use historical arguments for establishing the ADIZ and putting military muscle behind the claim that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are Chinese. Japan’s actions can probably be seen as a sign of fear concerning Chinese actions, such as the possibility that China would take the islands by force, or of not fully understanding the present behavior. Therefore, while the strengthening and repositioning of the Japanese armed forces within Japan has a lot to do with how China is viewed, it is also combined with a strong political message that Japan and China must cooperate and be open with their respective intentions. Economic interdependence between the two countries is very high and it would be in everybody’s interest if this interdependence were to be viewed in the spirit of Deng Xiaoping’s political philosophy.


Japan is involved in a number of territorial disputes with its neighbors, including over the Kurile Islands with Russia, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands with China, and Takeshima/Dokdo with South Korea. Does the reinterpretation of Article 9 harbor the potential to exacerbate military tensions over these disputes?

The potential should not be denied, but it really depends on the actions of China, South Korea and, not least, the United States. One could say that the Japanese control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has become easier to uphold through smoother bilateral defense cooperation between Japan and the U.S., which the reinterpretation of Article 9 allows. But it has also raised the stakes. If a military incident occurs, China has to face a Japan that has greater self-confidence due to greater integration between the Japanese and U.S. forces.

As for the Takeshima/Dokdo dispute, it is really a dead issue from a military perspective. Japan has no intention to try to take the rock formations by force, and the strength of the South Korean forces is sufficient to deter any thought in that direction. Therefore, it is only counterproductive to try to keep the dispute alive in political terms. Instead of claiming territorial sovereignty, it would be more constructive if Japan concentrated on trying to establish a bilateral agreement on sharing fishing rights and other natural resources, just as Japan and Taiwan have managed to do in their disputed waters.

I do not see any potential for exacerbation of military tensions regarding the Kurile Islands. While there were proposals that the dispute could be solved by dividing the islands between Russia and Japan, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, recently intimated that Japan should except the realities of the outcome of the Second World War, and therefore continued Russian control.

In sum, I do not see any signs in Japan that point in the direction of (re)claiming new or old territories by military means or destabilizing the status quo for political purposes.

What does the constitutional reinterpretation mean for the U.S.-Japan alliance and in terms of international engagements such as peacekeeping operations?

The U.S. has welcomed the reinterpretation. In an alliance it is only natural that both sides seek to better integrate capabilities and responsibilities. By lifting some of the restrictions of Article 9, Japan will be able to coordinate actions with the U.S. in ways that were not possible before. Yet there would still be limitations in the scale and type of assistance. For example, Japanese forces might not fight shoulder to shoulder with American troops, but they would be able to provide supply ships and perform rescue operations.

In terms of international engagements, there have been a lot of restrictions as to what Japan can and cannot do, and even in peacekeeping operations under the UN flag, Japanese forces have been severely restricted by Article 9, both in terms of what arms they can use and in what situations they can use them. Now they will be able to face dangers much the same way other countries do.

What has been the domestic reaction in Japan concerning recent developments?

There have been a lot of protests and demonstrations, for sure. Even within the Liberal Democratic Party, the largest coalition partner in the present government, there are dissenting voices and most of the opposition parties do not support the reinterpretation. There is a relatively large body of opinion in Japan that simply dislikes changes of the constitution, and especially a reinterpretation of Article 9. The basis for this is probably a common fear that a reinterpretation could unleash forces that will be hard to control, as was the case during the 1930s. But at the same time, most Japanese feel that criticism from neighboring countries concerning the so-called remilitarization of Japan is vastly exaggerated. Despite the existence of a limited number of extreme nationalists, there is definitely no widespread militaristic mood or high-pitched nationalism in Japanese society.


Lars Vargö is Distinguished Fellow at ISDP.

The opinions expressed in this Expert Interview are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute for Security and Development Policy or its sponsors. 

Picture credit: Flickr User U.S. Pacific Command