HIROSHIMA, Japan — Few cities know the struggle between peace and war as well as this one.
A moral debate is raging across Japan over whether the pacifist constitution American occupiers installed 70 years ago after World War II should be revised so the nation can better prepare itself against a rising China and North Korean nuclear threats.
But the scars from Japan’s militarized past run deep in Hiroshima, a hallowed city whose name has long been synonymous with the horrors of nuclear conflict and the peace and prosperity that came after World War II. Even for this city’s young — some three generations removed from the dropping of the first atomic bomb — the commitment to pacifism endures.
For them, as well as for elderly bomb survivors still living in Hiroshima, the idea of tinkering with Japan’s identity as the standard-bearer for the cause of pacifism is jarring.
“Japan seems to be preparing for war,” said Hanane, a 17-year-old student at Hiroshima’s Jogakuin Senior High School, which lost 350 children and teachers when the bomb fell in August 1945. “Because I know about the fear of war from survivors, I think Japan should not have a strong military.
“I’ve listened to the stories of survivors of the atomic bomb many times, and they always say we should never repeat the war,” Hanane told The Washington Times on a recent visit to Jogakuin. “The war caused the United States to drop the bomb.”
Her comments underscore the historical crosscurrents coursing beneath the debate in Japan, where legal scholars and many politicians say the pacifist constitution is outdated but popular fears are widespread of what could be unleashed if the country makes even the slightest move back toward the country’s prewar hypermilitarized past.
It’s a history President Trump appeared to have glossed over on his visit to Japan earlier this month. In remarks that sparked sharp debate here, Mr. Trump suggested that Tokyo should buy “massive amounts of military equipment” from the U.S. and should shoot North Korean missiles violating Japan’s airspace “out of the sky” the next time such a chance presents itself.
Mr. Trump made headlines as a presidential candidate when he suggested last year that Japan might do well to pursue a nuclear weapons arsenal.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his nationalist supporters have advocated for constitutional revision since coming to power in 2012, arguing it was well past time for Japan to become a “normal nation.” They say the document, which has never been amended, symbolizes Japan’s World War II defeat and has impeded the nation’s full emergence as a modern power and ally of the U.S. in Asia and around the world.
That argument got a major boost last month when Mr. Abe, 63, secured another three years in power following a snap election in which his conservative-leaning political coalition won a historic supermajority in Japan’s lower house of parliament. Theoretically, the huge majorities open the door for the Abe government to pass through a major constitutional overhaul.
The outcome thrust the constitutional debate to “the forefront” in Tokyo, Sheila A. Smith, a top Japan watcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an analysis published at the time. “No conversation in postwar Japanese politics will be of greater import than upcoming deliberations over whether, and how, to amend the 1947 constitution.”
The famous Article 9 of the constitution says the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” It adds that the land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.
But successive administrations in Tokyo began reinterpreting Article 9 decades ago. With quiet backing from Washington, the government has overseen the growth of a Japanese air-, ground- and sea-based military since the mid-1950s — all under the guise of the nation’s official Self-Defense Forces, or SDF. According to a 2015 index compiled by Credit Suisse, the Japanese military ranks as the fourth most formidable in the world, trailing only those of the U.S., Russia and China.
The SDF is well-equipped, but its activities have historically been restricted to little more than vague defensive posturing and cooperative exercises with U.S. forces based in Japan.
That has begun to change in recent years, however, with the Abe administration declaring its own reinterpretation of the constitution to allow the Japanese forces to train for overseas missions, such as U.N. peacekeeping deployments, and to provide defensive support to allies under attack.
The announcements and subsequent SDF posturing have drawn sharp reactions from other powers in East Asia, particularly China and South Korea, where memories of World War II authorities have not faded and many remain leery of a fully remilitarized Japan.
Any change to the actual language of the constitution, meanwhile, would require approval by two-thirds of Japan’s parliament. Mr. Abe’s current political coalition may be able to swing such a majority, but the change would have to win a national referendum.
Big questions are swirling around what the language of a proposed change to Article 9 might be and how the public — gripped by long-standing differences over Japanese identity and history — will respond.
The ‘Incredible Hulk’
The Japanese public is “strongly divided,” said Kenneth Mori McElwain, a constitutional law analyst at the University of Tokyo. He referred to polls showing only about 40 percent of voters support some form of Article 9 revision.
The figure is staggering if one considers “the most common answer Japanese give in political polls is, ‘I don’t know,’” said Mr. McElwain. “When it comes to the issue of constitutional review, it’s only about 8 percent who say, ‘I don’t know.’”
But he said there is significant public confusion on the matter, stemming from a lack of clarity about what language the Abe administration intends to propose.
In a nation where meaning is more often implied than stated directly, Mr. Abe has engaged in a delicate rhetorical dance on this issue. He has said his goal is to make “explicit the status” of Japan’s SDF — forces that already consist of some 230,000 active-duty troops with an annual budget of over $40 billion, but that could be considered unconstitutional under the wording of Article 9.
The prime minister has separately said Japan must “hold fast to the idea of pacifism.” But he also has long pushed for fewer restrictions on what the SDF can engage in militarily. Most notably, he ushered through legislation in 2015 to authorize possible SDF combat missions overseas — a move that was met by massive anti-war demonstrations in Tokyo.
“Pacifism is a core principle of the Japanese Constitution, and it’s something drilled into young people here. It’s very much like a point of national pride,” said Mr. McElwain. “In most countries, the civil military discussion has to do with making sure the military doesn’t turn its guns inward. But in Japan, the debate is always about a fear that the guns could be turned outward.”
“It’s sort of like an ‘Incredible Hulk’ situation,” he said. “There’s this ‘Don’t make me angry’ kind of thing — a domestic concern about what Japan might become imperially.”
The “Hulk” fear is shared by some of the nation’s most respected foreign policy elites, old enough to remember the militarized expansionism under Japanese Emperor Hirohito during the lead-up to World War II.
“A return to that is what I am afraid of,” said Ambassador Tetsuya Endo, a former high-level Japanese diplomat. “Changing the constitution may be necessary to clarify the ambiguity around the SDF, but once we do this, there is very real concern about going down a slippery slope.”
‘His grandfather’s dream’
In an interview at his home in Tokyo, the 82-year-old Mr. Endo wondered about the real motivations behind the push to revise the constitution.
He suggested that the issue may be personal for Mr. Abe, whose maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was branded a war criminal by Washington during the immediate aftermath of World War II but emerged as prime minister of Japan in the 1950s.
Among Kishi’s most controversial foreign policy initiatives was a push to revise the American-imposed constitution in a way that would restore powers to the emperor and allow Japan’s military to rise anew. “Kishi was an imperialist,” said Mr. Endo. “Abe doesn’t show it, but he at least admires his grandfather.”
Others say Mr. Abe is bent on restoring his grandfather’s legacy. “Abe’s grandfather wanted to change the constitution and bring Japan back to its prewar militarized prominence,” said Hideo Iwasaki, a longtime Japanese journalist on the management team at Mainichi Shimbun, a left-leaning newspaper in Tokyo. “Prime Minister Abe wants to accomplish his grandfather’s dream.”
Japanese media have reported on the Abe family’s close ties to Japan’s Mitsubishi Corp., which could benefit from the production and international sale of offensive weaponry if the constitution is revised.
“We should not change the constitution,” said Mr. Iwasaki, 49. “If it’s changed, the Japanese people could be manipulated back toward imperialistic violence.
“Japan is the only nation ever hit by nuclear weapons,” he said. “There’s great symbolism to that, and the nation should forever be on the forefront of peace in the world.”
But even some peace activists say a serious constitutional debate is long overdue and assert that more subtle modifications to Article 9 would not shatter the nation’s pacifist identity.
“To nationalists, it would be the end of the American-made constitution, but to realists, changing the constitution, according to democratic needs, [would be] a symbol of genuine democracy,” said Koji Soma, a prominent businessman who heads the Kobe Peace Research Institute.
“Japan will continue to be a democratic and peace-seeking nation,” said Mr. Soma, 66, who called it “unhealthy to imagine that a democratic nation will never be able to change its democratic constitution by democratic due process.”
Japanese conservatives say the world has changed in the past seven decades and it is unwise for Japan, one of the world’s most powerful economies, to carry on without recognizing the reality of North Korean nuclear threats and Chinese military muscle-flexing in Asia.
“The threats that Japan faces are obvious and growing more serious,” said Yoichi Shimada, a professor at Fukui Prefectural University, told the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle in an interview in May. “The current constitution says that we must basically trust our neighbors, but is it unrealistic to ask us to trust China, North Korea or Russia?”
“Over the longer term, the biggest danger to our sovereignty,” he said, “is the territorial ambitions of Beijing.”
The constitutional debate is also being fueled by a perception that “U.S. influence in Asia has been dwindling for decades,” said Kosuke Takahashi, a Japanese reporter for Jane’s Defense Weekly. “Japan has to fill in that power vacuum by changing its constitution. It needs to have retaliatory capabilities just in case.”
The ambiguous nature of the SDF under Article 9 has left successive administrations scrambling to update the government’s official interpretation of the constitution, said Mr. Takahashi, 49.
“It’s very dangerous because whoever’s in power can change the interpretation,” he said. “We have to change [the actual language] with a legal mind. Article 9 should say Japan has a national military prowess to defend the country and that Japan will cooperate with U.N. forces.
“The current Article 9 denies our right to defend our nation,” said Mr. Takahashi, asserting that times have changed since U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the commander of Allied forces in the Pacific during World War II, crafted the document to “contain Japan.”
They moved ‘like ghosts’
The constitution was written after Japan’s surrender to U.S. forces, who had dropped the atomic bombs that killed nearly a quarter million people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing Tokyo’s surrender and avoiding what many feared would a bloody invasion of the Japanese mainland by the U.S. and its allies. Talk of altering the document today is hard to comprehend for survivors, who recall growing up in the era of runaway Japanese militarism during World War II.
“My fear is people will forget the imperialist past,” said Hiromi Hasai, survivor and member of the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation. “If the constitution changes, maybe some right-wing or imperialist group could come to power and the military industry could start a war to make money.”
“This is a risk,” said Mr. Hasai, who on Aug. 6, 1945, was living 9 miles outside Hiroshima when the mushroom cloud rose over the city at 8:16 in the morning. He was 14 and has graphic memories of the days that followed.
The 86-year-old’s eyes flicker with intensity when he recalls the “melted faces and bodies” of those people moving “like ghosts” from the burned-out wasteland of downtown.
“I can’t understand Mr. Abe’s way of thinking,” said Mr. Hasai. “Maybe he wants something to be remembered by in history, but he doesn’t know anything about the very difficult days before the war or after the war. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and knows nothing of regular people.
“For 70 years, we didn’t change the constitution,” he said. “It’s the most important document of the country. It’s wonderful because it locks in peace.”
“We have so many things given from America, good and bad, but the best is the constitution,” said Keiko Ogura, who was 8 when the bomb hit. “Until that time, Japan was awful in terms of its invasions of other Asian nations.
“Changing the constitution will open the way toward militarism,” said Mrs. Ogura. “We’re afraid it will be exaggerated and, over time, Japan will dispatch soldiers to the world, like a drop of water, then two drops, then three. What we need is to hold on to the pacifist core of the nation.”
She said she is worried that “young people nowadays might think that Japan is weak and in need of powerful weapons.”
It’s fear not lost on teens such as Hanane and others the Jogakuin school in downtown Hiroshima — even as they struggle to articulate Japan’s right to defend itself in an evolving world.
“I don’t think Japan should lean toward having a strong military, but I think it should have a strong barrier system to protect from North Korea because North Korea has stronger and stronger missiles,” said Atsuho, a 17-year-old at the school. “The Japanese government should take measures against that.
“But,” she said, “Japan is a peaceful country.”