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New era for Japan: allowing overseas combat role for military

Lawmakers passed bills Saturday that significantly shift defense policy. But debates over Prime Minister Abe's 'jackhammer' approach are not over. 

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    Japanese ruling party lawmakers applauded after legislation loosening post-World War II constraints on use of force by the military was passed in a vote by the upper house of parliament Saturday.
    Koji Sasahara/AP
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Japanese awoke Saturday to the news that their nation had undergone its most significant shift in defense policy since the revision of the Japan-US Security Treaty in 1960.

In the very early hours of the morning, security bills that reinterpret the pacifist Article 9 of Japan's Constitution – and that allow its military to engage in fighting abroad even if Japan is not attacked – had finally passed.

The bills were carried by a vote of 148 to 90 in Japan's Upper House after a record 226 hours of deliberations, delays, and drama across the parliament's two chambers. The week of marathon sessions was punctuated by lawmakers' raised fists and shoving matches, a plethora of procedural blocking measures by the opposition, and large, noisy protests by citizens outside.

The 1960 legislation was forced through by Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, grandfather of present incumbent Shinzo Abe. The aftermath of public anger cost Mr. Kishi his job, and honoring his legacy has been a driving force in his grandson's political career. 

The protesters this time around have numbered thousands rather than hundreds of thousands, and Mr. Abe is not about to step down.

The new laws change the parameters for Japan's military, but won't end debate about its constitutionality.

The focus of the protests were "collective self-defense" provisions that allow Japanese forces to go overseas and to retaliate if an ally, usually assumed to be the United States, is attacked by a third party. 

Abe and his supporters see the current situation, whereby Japanese forces must wait until they are fired upon before responding, as unrealistic and setting Japan apart from "normal" countries. For defense hawks, a belligerent China, an unpredictable North Korea, and the threat of international terrorism make the changes a necessity.

But for opponents, the bills "risk reversing the path we have walked for the past 70 years as a country of peace and democracy," said Yukio Edano, of the opposition Democratic Party, during the debates.

In Japan, something many hawks and doves do agree on is that interpretations of the pacifist Article 9 are less than crystal clear, and that the new laws are not a real substitute or work-around of the basic article. 

Article 9 declares that, "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained." However, the Japan Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) are an army, navy and air force in all but name.

Referendum a better solution?

So called "collective self-defense," which the new security laws approve, is not mentioned in Article 9, but its constitutionality has been the subject of fierce debate. All summer, Japanese legal scholars have issued statements saying that passing bills in the Diet that inherently revise a fundamental article is not constitutional. 

The new legislation will not put an end to those arguments, according to Osamu Nishi, constitutional scholar and professor at Komazawa University.

"The ultimate solution would be a referendum on the issue, on whether to keep the capability to wage war, including the armed forces. With no referendum, the vagueness will keep on forever," says Prof. Nishi, who supports the new laws.

A referendum would require a simple majority of the Japanese people to vote in favor, something that is unlikely given Japan's pacifist-inclined citizenry. At public hearings on the security bills held this week at the Diet, nearly 100 people applied to speak. Not one supported the government's position.

Masato Yamanaka, a lawyer and member of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, which has issued a number of statements against the new legislation, believes the Abe administration is forcing through what amounts to a change in the plain meaning of the Constitution without the required referendum. 

"Even hawkish lawyers have criticized this for not following the correct constitutional procedures," said Mr. Yamanka.

While the government has been accused of ignoring public opinion and using a heavy hand to get the bills through – English language versions of Japanese media used the term "jackhammer" – some observers say it has actually gone out of its way to comply with procedural rules in the Diet.

With its huge majority, the government could have passed these bills last year, when the decision was taken at cabinet level, notes Michael Cucek, a consultant and adjunct professor of political science at Tokyo's Sophia University.

"The debate, if pig-headed, has been respectful of the democratic process, perhaps to the extent that more attention has been paid to the details of the process than to the details of the issue," said Mr. Cucek.

The debates featured exhaustive questioning of Defense Minister Gen Nakatani by opposition lawmakers about how the Japan Self-Defense Forces would respond in a myriad of different scenarios.

"The issue is foggy. However precisely it is mapped out by MOFA [foreign ministry] officials, members of the JSDF can't be expected to go and sit with clipboards [in a combat situation] and check boxes to confirm certain conditions are being met. But they can at least now plan and train," added Cucek.

Some worry that in addition to the danger of regional conflicts, Japan could now be pulled into the kind of wars in faraway places that it has thus far been able to avoid.

"There were terrorist attacks in the UK and Spain because of their involvement in the Iraq War. I don't want to see that happen to Japan," said Mr. Yamanaka, the lawyer.

US lawmakers welcomed the bills' passage. “The new measures adopted by Japan today will contribute to international peace and security while strengthening the vital alliance between our two countries,” according to a joint statement issued by Democratic and Republican senators. 

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