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Reinterpreting Japan’s Constitution

by Sheila A. Smith
July 2, 2014

A protester raises a placard as they gather at a rally against Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's push to expand Japan's military role in front of Abe's official residence in Tokyo June 30, 2014 A protester raises a placard as they gather at a rally against Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe's push to expand Japan's military role in front of Abe's official residence in Tokyo June 30, 2014. (Issei Kato/Courtesy Reuters)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proposed a reinterpretation of Japan’s postwar constitution to allow the military to use force alongside other national militaries, a right that postwar Japanese leaders have to date refused their Self-Defense Force (SDF). Japan’s decision will shape the way the SDF cooperates not only with the U.S. military but with other militaries in Asia, where relations are increasingly fraught. Japan has already expanded its security consultations with a variety of regional powers, including Australia, South Korea, the Philippines, and India, and has relaxed restrictions on the transfer of military technology. Now, the SDF could play a role in building regional military coalitions.

For Washington policymakers, this seems long overdue as Japan is increasingly challenged by the geostrategic changes underway in the Asia-Pacific region. The aim is to conclude the domestic deliberations over collective self-defense to coincide with completing the revision of the U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines at the end of 2014. Yet within Japan, the debate is less about strategy and more about the efficacy of the broader domestic reforms in civil-military relations instituted in the wake of Japan’s devastating defeat in World War II. Abe’s effort to reinterpret the constitution remains contentious among opposition legislators, including his coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, and the public seems uncomfortable with pushing the bounds of Article 9.

The Relaxation of Military Restrictions

The relationship between Japan’s constitution, drafted under U.S. Occupation and ratified by the Japanese government in 1947, and the development of Japan’s postwar military remains largely misunderstood. Article 9 states that 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.” For that purpose, “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” The Japanese government interpreted its constitution to allow for self-defense, however, and this is reflected in the name of its postwar military, the Self-Defense Force, created in 1954.

Japan’s military has come a long way since then. Its capability was largely rebuilt by the 1970s, and while Tokyo limited expenditures to 1 percent of GDP, economic growth allowed for the modernization of significant air and naval power. Media depiction of Japan as a “checkbook power” during the Persian Gulf War in 1990–1991, however, stung in Tokyo and Japan’s decision-makers began to relax limits on overseas deployment, signing the Peacekeeping Operations Law in 1992. Over the past two decades, Japan has dispatched the SDF to thirteen UN Peacekeeping Operations (PKO), including missions in Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Haiti, and most recently South Sudan. At home, the SDF earned popular support after the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in 2011. Japan’s military became the first responders to the earthquake and tsunami damage, coping with tremendous loss of life and property in Tohoku. Close cooperation with U.S. military forces demonstrated the tremendous value of the peacetime exercises and planning in the U.S.-Japan alliance.

These experiences have brought home the difficulties in the current interpretation of the constitution for SDF operations. Multilateral military cooperation in particular revealed contradictions in Japan’s position on the right of collective self-defense. For example, the dispatch of the SDF to Iraq in support of reconstruction activities required other militaries to provide perimeter defenses, as the Ground Self-Defense Force members were unable to use their weapons beyond the narrow purpose of defending themselves. When Japan decided to send its Maritime Self-Defense Force to participate in the anti-piracy effort in the Gulf of Aden, ships were initially discouraged from using force on behalf of other coalition partners.

The Right of Collective Self-Defense

Two arguments are shaping Japan’s contemporary politics over the “right of collective self-defense”: the military rationale for policy change and the demand for a national consensus on changing the government’s interpretation of the constitution.

The Military Rationale

Debate over reinterpreting the constitution to allow for the right of collective self-defense is not new. Prime Minister Abe constituted an advisory board to consider Japan’s defense requirements and the right of collective self-defense during his first tenure as prime minister in 2006. When he returned to office, he reconstituted the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security in early 2013. The group presented its findings to the prime minister last month, and offered a much broader set of recommendations for reconsidering the constraints currently imposed on Japan’s military.

Several new aspects of their recommendations stand out. First, this recent assessment includes not only the United States but also other potential military partners. Second, the report addresses the overall needs of the SDF and weighs the impact of constraining their ability to use force collectively as well as on their own. Finally, the report tackles the overarching question of whether Japan can adequately defend itself without considering integrating the command structure for U.S. and Japanese forces.

The main reason for taking another look at how Article 9 is interpreted is the new security environment in Asia, and Japan’s growing need for security cooperation not only with the United States but also with other partners in the region. But another impetus for Abe’s proposal is the growing list of lessons learned by the SDF as they have accumulated significant experience in working alongside other nation’s militaries.

The contingencies in which Japan thought it might be involved in a conflict were all contingencies elsewhere. During the Cold War—and even in its aftermath—the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Straits seemed to be the flashpoints in East Asia most likely to require Japan to consider its defense needs. Yet the role expected of Japan was to support U.S. operations both in Japan and elsewhere in the region. Should a conflict spill over to affect Japan, the U.S. and Japanese militaries would cooperate to defend the country. The division of labor in the alliance was that the United States would provide offensive capability and the SDF would concentrate on the less likely and smaller scale impact of any spillover effects from regional conflicts.

Today that assumption is being questioned. North Korea’s nuclear and missile proliferation provides ample opportunity for challenging Japan’s defenses. China’s growing military power and the tensions that have erupted over the island dispute in the East China Sea raise the prospect of a more direct confrontation between Asia’s two major powers. Japanese planners worry that the limits imposed on the SDF may constrain their ability to work with U.S. forces on ballistic missile defense and maritime security, two missions increasingly prominent in alliance priories.

Attention is focused on what Japan’s military can do with others, but there are also important questions about the limits imposed on the use of force for self-defense. While politicians debate over how best to implement the spirit of Article 9, the SDF must interpret how the basic premise of the minimum level of force translates into actual military operations. For example, must the Japanese military wait for another country to strike the first blow before it initiates the use of force? What should the SDF do to respond to incidents below the level of war, the so-called “grey zone” scenario of an uncertain missile launch or a paramilitary landing on Japanese islands? Part of the Abe cabinet’s effort to clarify the legal basis for SDF response focuses on emerging scenarios and new technologies.

Building a Political Consensus

The larger challenge for Abe will be to build a national consensus around his cabinet’s decision. Already, protestors have gathered in front of his office, and the government will face further opposition in the fall parliamentary session when it seeks to revise legislation based on this new constitutional interpretation. With a majority in both houses of parliament, it may seem at first glance that Abe’s proposal will be realized without much fuss. Yet this is not the case.

First of all, the LDP’s legislative majority relies on the cooperation of a smaller but politically valuable ally, Komeito. Already, Komeito has sought to limit Abe’s latitude on reinterpretation. President Natsuo Yamaguchi yesterday noted that any further changes in Japan’s constitution would require a formal process of revision, putting the government decision in front of the Japanese people. Second, Japan’s postwar politics in defense of its constitution have far deeper resistance within its society than a count of Diet seats would suggest. Persuading the Japanese people that it is necessary to reinterpret the constitution will be difficult. Abe will need to build a national consensus to make this work.

The LDP has long argued for Japan to play a proactive role in its security and to reform Japan’s defense legislation to allow for a fuller SDF role in the U.S.-Japan alliance. Shigeru Ishiba, the secretary-general of the party, on a recent visit to Washington, DC, put it this way:

“If Japan chooses not to exercise the right of collective self-defense, it will be unable to maintain deterrence and independence, and it will be unable to contribute to the peace and stability of the region. Alternatively, as the United States is attempting to transform its bilateral alliance relationships in Asia from the old hub-and-spokes model to a networked set of alliance relations, Japan could become a source of instability if it insisted on remaining in an unreciprocated military partnership with Washington.”

Ishiba’s personal preference is to move the U.S.-Japan alliance further in the direction of other U.S. alliances, where both partners agree to defend each other.

But this is not a widely held view outside of the conservative party. Even the LDP’s coalition partner argues against integrating Japan’s military into U.S.-Japan alliance missions. In the consultations that led to the cabinet resolution, LDP and Komeito party leaders Masahiko Komura and Kazuo Kitagawa discussed a variety of scenarios, and more often than not, Komeito argued that the current interpretation might be sufficient to meet most of the government’s concerns. Komeito contended that “grey zone” contingencies such as a landing on one of Japan’s many islands could best be handled by the Japan Coast Guard, and should be considered as a police mission rather than a military one. Likewise, Komeito saw the current interpretation as sufficient to allow expanding SDF participation in PKO. In the end, a far more limited reinterpretation of Article 9 was adopted largely as a result of Komeito’s cautious approach.

Japan’s prime minister needs to persuade the Japanese public that he is on the right path. Public opinion polls by the major media outlets are revealing serious concerns over reinterpreting the constitution. Worries over the government’s approach are twofold. Many, including Komeito, argue that this discussion deserves more careful deliberation to build a consensus within Japan. Others, including those polled by the Nikkei Shimbun, worry about the concerns of Japan’s neighbors, and suggest that the Abe cabinet needs to provide greater consultations and transparency for those outside Japan about its ultimate objectives.

Today’s debate over the right of collective self-defense also raises the question of whether the Japanese people have sufficient voice in the process of policy change. While the government’s goals for new legislation that will allow the SDF greater latitude for military cooperation focus on specific military missions, it is clear that the LDP ultimately wants to revise the document that has defined Japan’s postwar policy of military restraint. The prime minister has consistently advocated for revision as a way of “escaping the postwar” constraints on Japan’s autonomy. In his writings during his time out of office, Abe unabashedly argued that Japanese themselves did not author the document, and its origins as a product of the U.S. Occupation compromises its ability to represent Japan’s contemporary identity. In Abe’s New Year’s address this year, he argued that the constitution “expresses the form of the nation,” and thus after sixty-eight years, the time had come to “deepen our national discussions, with a view to introducing amendments” that reflect the changes of the times.

For those anxious about Abe’s ultimate intentions, criticism focuses on process more than substance. Hovering over the debate over collective self-defense, therefore, is this question about the legitimate process for changing policy on the SDF’s use of force. In a recent poll by the Asahi Shimbun, opinion was divided over the policy change, but a majority felt that reinterpretation without seeking the direct voice of the Japanese people was “inappropriate.”

The United States is largely seen as an advocate for greater action by the Japanese military, both in terms of its radius of operations and the latitude it has to cooperate with U.S. forces on shared missions. But the U.S. stake in Japan’s constitution extends far beyond this narrow debate over how the SDF operates. It is in the interest of the United States to ensure that any changes Abe makes are fully supported by the Japanese people. Otherwise, any decision on collective self-defense would undermine confidence in the alliance if it was perceived as appeasing Washington rather than serving Japan’s own interests. The Japanese people must support this evolving role for their military and remain confident that their government will only use military force for the purpose of self-defense.

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Helen Hardacre

    This cogent and thorough review of the debate in Japan today regarding collective self-defense should be read and discussed widely among all those concerned with the heightened tension among East Asian and Pacific Rim nations. A “must-read” for understanding the question of constitutional revision in Japan.

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