Abe’s Hollow Victory? Public Uproar over Collective Self-Defense
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe achieved a cherished policy goal with the September 19 , 2015, passage of security legislation revising the ground rules for military engagement. In the process, however, he triggered a major public backlash, underscoring the strength of the nation’s attachment to its pacifist Constitution. Katsuyuki Yakushiji weighs the costs and benefits of Abe’s legislative victory.
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On September 19, the Diet passed a package of security bills that loosen constraints on Japan’s military and open the way to limited participation in collective self-defense, one of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s key policy objectives.
Passage of the bills came after days of fierce clashes between the ruling and opposition parties, climaxing in the early hours of Saturday morning. Deliberations in the Diet turned chaotic while tens of thousands of protesters chanted outside and news helicopters whirred overhead.
It was the first time in recent memory that a piece of national legislation had triggered such an uproar, not merely within the Diet but more widely among the general public. Although the security bills concerned issues seemingly remote from people’s everyday lives, they turned out to be highly divisive.
The new legislation is controversial because it permits Japan to engage in collective self-defense, albeit under very limited conditions. What this means is that the government can deploy the Self-Defense Forces to assist an ally in combat operations overseas, even if Japan itself is not under attack. Opponents argue that under the new laws, Japan could end up participating in an attack on another country in clear violation of the postwar Constitution.
What Do the New Laws Change ?
In the wake of defeat in World War II, the nation adopted a pacifist Constitution that renounced the use of force to settle international disputes. This national commitment never again to wage war has been a basic premise of postwar Japanese government for almost seven decades. Although this has not prevented Japan from maintaining the SDF, strict constraints have been imposed on its scope and mode of activity.
Seen in this light, the new legislation marks a major turning point in Japanese security policy. But how exactly will it change things? Let us begin by reviewing the provisions at issue.
The Legislation for Peace and Security, as the government has named it, consists of 10 separate laws, whose key provisions do the following:
(1) Provide greater latitude to the SDF in providing logistic, medical, and other rear-area support for US and other foreign armed forces in situations that have a major impact on Japan’s security.
(2) Permit SDF support for UN peacekeeping operations and other internationally coordinated peace and security operations, including previously prohibited “police-like” missions.
(3) Permit the deployment of SDF personnel to rescue Japanese nationals abroad in the event that their lives are endangered by armed conflict, terrorism, etc.
(4) Permit the use of force by the SDF even if Japan is not under direct attack, in the event that a country in a close relationship with Japan is under armed attack and Japan’s safety is threatened as a result (limited collective self-defense).
Most countries incorporate such latitude into their security policies as a matter of course. But for decades the Japanese people were told that under their war-renouncing Constitution, the Self-Defense Forces existed solely to protect the peace and security of the people within the confines of their own territory (including territorial waters and air space). This is why many now find it difficult to accept the idea of the SDF playing a more open-ended role in war zones around the world.
Individual and Collective Self-Defense
Article 9 of the Constitution begins, “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, 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.” This seems a clear enough prohibition on the use of military force overseas.
The second paragraph continues, “To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” Taken at face value, paragraph 2 would seem to deny Japan the right even to maintain its own armed forces. However, the government has long taken the position that the Constitution does not deny Japan the right to defend itself from attack and that the SDF is constitutional as long as its sole purpose is self-defense.
One way in which the government reassured people inside and outside of Japan that the SDF would not overstep these bounds was by maintaining a sharp distinction between individual and collective self-defense. According to the government’s interpretation, Article 9 permitted Japan to engage in individual self-defense but not collective self-defense. In other words, it had a natural right to use force to repel a direct attack by another country, but it did not have the right to use force to protect or aid an ally if Japan itself was not under direct attack. This interpretation placed limits on the size and type of Japan’s military capability and reinforced the prohibition on the use of force overseas. The interpretation of Article 9 as prohibiting collective self-defense has been a defining feature of Japan’s security policy under every previous postwar administration.
However, in July 2014, the Abe government issued a cabinet decision (“Development of Seamless Security Legislation to Ensure Japan’s Survival and Protect its People”) that loosened the interpretation of Article 9 to permit the limited exercise of the right of collective self-defense. Armed with this new interpretation, the cabinet drafted legislation (one of the laws passed on September 19) that would allow the SDF to engage in overseas combat under the following conditions:
(1) An armed attack has been launched against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan, threatening Japan’s survival and presenting a clear danger to the Japanese people’s fundamental right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
(2) There are no other appropriate means available to repel the attack.
(3) Use of force is limited to the minimum degree necessary.
The government may deploy the SDF overseas to engage in military action only if these three rigorous conditions are met.
Sidestepping the Constitution
Arguing the need for new legislation, the government pointed out that Japan’s security environment had changed fundamentally since the Constitution had come into effect. It made the case that Japan needed a new legal framework adapted to such pressing realities as the modernization and expansion of the Chinese military, North Korea’s development and testing of nuclear weapons and missiles, the spread of terrorism around the globe, and the relative decline of US power. It claimed that by broadening the scope of SDF activities, including joint exercises carried out with US forces, the new laws would strengthen the Japan-US alliance and provide a more potent deterrent to aggressive behavior by other countries in the region.
A substantial number of experts, commentators, and voters agreed, stressing the need for new policies in the face of China’s efforts to expand control over the South and East China Sea in violation of international law. But such practical policy considerations did not quell the growing furor over the government’s bid to reinterpret the Constitution by fiat.
Opponents charged that the so-called Peace and Security Law was actually war legislation designed to open the door to SDF involvement in war; that participation in collective self-defense was a violation of the Constitution; and that, if the legislation passed, Japan would become embroiled in American conflicts.
The legal argument proved particularly potent. Successive cabinets have consistently taken the position that collective self-defense is prohibited under Article 9. If collective self-defense is unconstitutional, then the only way to make it legal is by amending the Constitution. Critics warned that the precedent of nullifying such a longstanding and accepted interpretation with a single cabinet decision would undermine the stability of the Constitution as the law of the land. The government could offer no satisfactory answer to this objection.
As a consequence, the bills came under fire from legal experts nationwide, including constitutional scholars, former chiefs of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, and former Supreme Court justices. Many scholars signed petitions opposing the bills.
Another notable feature of the recent protests was the degree of spontaneous involvement by university students and other young people. These were not, for the most part, people affiliated with and mobilized by any particular organization or party. They were simply concerned young people who received and spread the word via social media and gathered outside the Diet Building in numbers Japan has not seen since the early 1970s.
These protesters were afraid that the legislation could propel Japan into another war. But above all, they were outraged that the prime minister had bypassed the prescribed democratic procedures for amending the Constitution and had reinterpreted a key provision by cabinet decision. The political methods Abe used to pursue his goals ended up galvanizing a broad cross-section of the nation to action.
Notwithstanding the breadth and intensity of this backlash, Abe’s new legislation is unlikely to usher in dramatic changes in the quantity and quality of SDF activity overseas in the foreseeable future. The three conditions noted above constitute a high hurdle to participation in combat operations in the name of collective self-defense. In fact, the type of scenario envisioned seems unlikely in the extreme. Some in the Defense Ministry have dismissed the most controversial portion of the legislation as something that is unlikely ever to be put into effect.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abe could end up paying a high price for his nominal victory. In public opinion polls, between 70% and 80% of respondents said they opposed the new security laws. For the time being, though, the Abe government’s approval rating has remained relatively stable.
And while the government was channeling its energy into passage of unpopular security legislation, its vaunted campaign to revitalize the economy was losing momentum, raising doubts as to the long-term efficacy of Abenomics. Soon after passage, the prime minister returned to his economic agenda, reshuffling his cabinet and announcing a fresh set of goals for his growth strategy, including boosting gross domestic product to 600 trillion and raising the nation’s total fertility rate to 1.8 in a bid to build a “society in which all 100 million people are actively engaged.” How these goals will be achieved, though, has yet to be spelled out.