Tokyo — The postwar occupation of Japan by the Allied powers is not only history -- it is alive and well as a political issue here. Gen. Douglas MacArthur of the United States is long gone, but the Constitution he bequeathed to this country still needles successive Japanese governments.
For example, it makes it virtually impossible for Japan to do anything to protect Japanese citizens caught up in the fighting between Iran and Iraq in the Gulf.
The present Constitution has its imperfections. But the slightest hint that it should be revised is guaranteed to raise hackles on all sides.
It was a brave step, therefore, when Justice Minister Seisuke Okuno recently suggested the nation should be encouraged to grasp the nettle of constitutional revision.
Opposition parties and vigilante groups emitted a predictable howl of protest , detecting a chance to corner the new government of Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki.
As a result, parliamentary proceedings for the past few weeks have been dominated by government officials being pressed to swear virtual oaths of loyalty to defend the Constitution, blemishes and all.
It is crucial debate, for it revolves around the question of how far the Constitution permits Japan to arm itself and to defend its interests militarily.
As part of Japan's postwar democratization process under the occupation, General MacArthur, who was supreme commander Allied powers, instructed the Japanese government to produce a new constitution. But in February 1946, he rejected the initial Japanese version and instructed his staff to map out a "model draft" that would enshrine to the people's will; abolition of all forms of feudalism; and renunciation of the right to wage war "forever."
Accounts from that time say MacArthur told the Japanese government that if it failed to follow the Allied draft, the Constitution would be placed before the public in a national referendum.
The no-war principle was enshrined in Article 9 of the Constitution adopted in 1947. The then prime minister, Shigeru Yoshida, assured doubtful Cabinet members that this was right because "in the past all the imperialist wars were conducted in the name of self-defense."
The no-war clause has haunted Japanese defense policy ever since. Within two years, even General MacArthur found it expedient to qualify the renunciation of military power by encouraging creation of a national police reserve of some 70, 000 men, armed as infantry soldiers to prevent communist subversion.
This police force was reorganized into the present Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in 1954. The government, however, has had to weather regular court challenges to the SDF, challenges in which Article 9 is always quoted.
Despite judicial rulings that the Constitution does not forbid self-defense, the SDF and its civilian masters continue to regard themselves as under tight restraints that now hamper Japan from completely fulfilling US expectations of a large regional security role.
The Iran-Iraq was is a case in point. A major portion of Japan's oil is threatened by expansion of the fighting, but Tokyo has no legal way to protect its oil tankers in the area.
In recent days, hundreds of Japanese technicians have had to be evacuated from the immediate war area in southern Iran to Tehran. But, as SDF officials have explained to the Diet (parliament), under the existing restraints Japanese military aircraft could not be used in any emergency airlift of Japanese nationals from a war zone.
It is in this context that the current row over the Constitution is being waged. Justice Minister Okuno initially suggested the time had come to stop regarding the postwar Constitution as sacrosanct and not subject to change under any circumstances.
In the prevailing political climate, however, any talk of revision is regarded by the opposition as shorthand for rearming Japan and marching down the road to militarism along pre-World War II lines.
Prime Minister Suzuki tried to calm tempers by saying he had no intention of considering constitutional revision at this time because there was no national consensus. But he insisted that, although government ministers were required to defend the Constitution, that did not stop them from discussing the issue of revision.
A booklet issued by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on the Constitution recently indicates a wide cross-section of Japanese favor serious public consideration of possible revisions.
The irrepressible Mr. Okuno, however, widened the controversy by subsequently insisting that the government need not feel bound by the Constitution in its present form since it was drafted while Japan had no sovereignty under Allied occupation. In fact, he hinted, the Constitution had been "forced" on Japan.
After prolonged parliamentary heckling, and being disowned by his prime minister, the justice minister amended his statement to say that Japan had "no administrative rights under the occupation."
In an attempt to cool tempers, the government issued a formal document reaffirming that it would strictly uphold the no-war clause by preventing arms sales abroad and the dispatch of Japanese troops in any shape or form (including UN peace-keeping forces).
The Cabinet-approved document also said the Constitution did not allow Japanese armed forces to stage joint action with other countries to defend sea lanes used by Japanese merchant ships (for example, the Strait of Hormuz).
Diplomatic observers said that, by creating an emotive controversy, Mr. Okuno probably had set back the cause of getting Japan to increase its military spending rapidly.