Prime Minister Abe wants review of legal constraints on Japan's military

Abe wants to 'reinterpret' Japan's pacifist Constitution, arguing that Japan must be better positioned to deal with potential threats in the region – and to come to the aid of allies.

Junji Kurokawa
A woman holds up a placard together with others during a rally against Japan's plan to reform its constitution in Tokyo, Thursday, May 15, 2014. Japan currently maintains a military only for its own defense, and has previously interpreted the war-renouncing Article 9 of its postwar constitution as meaning it cannot engage in what is known as collective self-defense.

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Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe today targeted a cornerstone of his country's 60-year postwar military posture, stating that it was time to review the long-accepted stance that Japan is constitutionally barred from using force except in cases of self-defense.

His call came after an advisory panel presented Mr. Abe with its recommendations for changes to Japan's defense laws. As expected, they proposed eliminating current limits on Japan's use of its military, albeit with conditions to avoid abuse, the BBC reports.

Skirting the highly controversial question of amending the Constitution, the focus would be on "reinterpreting" Article 9, which states in part 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." 

At the crux of the push for change is collective self-defense: Japan's right to come to the defense of allies, such as the United States, even if not under attack itself. Currently Japan can only take up arms if attacked. Japan's military is known as the Self-Defense Forces – a force whose existence itself could be seen as a "reinterpretation" from earlier governments, Reuters reports, which notes that the "constitution has never been formally revised since its adoption in 1947, although successive governments have stretched its limits, which if taken literally ban the maintenance of any armed forces at all."

Japan's so-called pacifist Constitution, which the US drew up in the aftermath of World War II, has widespread public support. But Abe and other conservatives argue that Japan must be better positioned to deal with potential military threats in the region, including from North Korea and China, and to be a stronger player in international peacekeeping efforts. 

The US is supportive, with President Barack Obama saying he welcomed the review during his recent visit to Japan. And Abe is trying to reassure critics, stating at a news conference today that  "Japan has walked the path of a peaceful country for nearly 70 years since the end of World War Two. That path will not change. But we cannot protect our peaceful lives simply by repeating that we are a peaceful country. Our peaceful lives may suddenly confront a crisis." 

The effort is as much emotional as it is strategic. Article 9 is a reminder of Japan's aggression and brutality in World War II, The Christian Science Monitor notes.

Successive administrations have interpreted the clause to facilitate the build-up of a well-equipped military, yet one with a strictly defensive posture.

Abe and his supporters say that only by casting off the shackles of a constitution imposed by a victorious enemy can Japan vanquish its postwar guilt and emerge as a “normal” nation. He points out that Japan cannot come to the aid of an ally under attack under the current Constitution.  

Some citizens interpret the desire to be a "normal" nation very differently. Today, as the advisory panel prepared to present their recommendations to Abe, 2,500 protesters formed a human chain outside the diet, or parliament, in protest, Asahi Shimbun reports. Many of them were older Japanese who could remember the days of World War II. 

“We should never let Japan become a type of country that wages war again,” said Tetsuji Takada, a 78-year-old resident of Tokyo’s Adachi Ward who joined the rally with his wife.

Takada was 9 years old when World War II ended.

He said many of the older neighbors he used to play with were called up to fight for Japan.

On the day the neighbors left for their missions, Takada’s family smiled and threw their arms in the air in a “banzai” salute to cheer them on. Many of his friends never returned from the battlefields.

Takada described the time as an “insane period” when one’s death was equated with honor. He also lamented the current lack of “realistic discussions” on the ramifications of exercising the right to collective self-defense.

“I wonder if we would be treated as heroes again if we died in war now,” he said.

The Economist reports that a poll by the liberal newspaper Asahi found that 63 percent of Japanese oppose the changes to Article 9. The "Japanese people who preserve Article 9" were shortlisted for a Nobel Peace Prize last year.

There is broad domestic concern about what Japan will do without legally imposed, clear limits on its military action. Kyouji Yanagisawa, a security expert under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, outlined the worries to the Associated Press: "Currently, the bottom line is whether Japan comes under foreign attack. Then, what serves as the brake for an abuse of the right to self-defense when Japan is not under direct attack?"

In a bid to win over doubters, officials in Abe's government have floated proposals in recent weeks that would limit when Japan would exercise collective self-defense.

The Diplomat, an online news outlet that covers the Asia Pacific region, outlines what are expected to be the six key components:

Three are conditional and three are procedural. The conditional requirements include: 1) A close Japanese ally is under attack; 2) A grave threat to Japanese security exists if force is withheld; and 3) Another country under attack asks Japan for offensive military assistance. The procedural requirements are: 1) The prime minister decides to use force; 2) The Diet approves the prime minister’s decision; and 3) A third country grants Japan permission to move troops through its territory en route to a conflict.

Abe also faces a difficult political battle. His Liberal Democratic Party is in a coalition with New Komeito, a Buddhist party with a "strong tradition" of pacifism, the Monitor reports.

The opposition is ultimately unlikely to deter Abe, political analysts told the Monitor. “There are no big elections for another couple of years and no institutional barriers to the cabinet changing its interpretation of the Constitution,” says Professor Jiro Yamaguchi, a political scientist at Hosei University in Tokyo. “At the same time, the cabinet’s general approval rating is still quite high, so I think Abe believes he can pursue his [constitutional reform] agenda even though the public is against it.”

But The Diplomat writes that Abe is determined to have full backing before pursuing what amounts to a redefining of a central principle of modern Japan.

The LDP is indeed being very careful with how it pursues collective self-defense and lets the proposal play out, first in the cabinet and then in the Diet. It wants total unanimity within the Cabinet before it pursues debate in the Diet; a completely united front on the part of the government will be required to cause the first cracks in Japan’s pacifist society as enshrined in its constitution.

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