Japanese corporate executives doing business with China as well as diplomats stationed in Japan and neighboring countries are probably breathing a sigh of relief now that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has dialed down his hawkish stance from the campaign trail in December and has instead focused on stimulus measures to boost the sagging economy.
However, Abe appears to be pushing at least one of his pet conservative — and controversial — goals, even though he faces the all-important Upper House election this summer: reinterpreting the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 to reinforce the Japanese-U.S. military alliance.
“I will mull new ways to cope with the new security situation surrounding Japan,” Abe said during a Diet session last week.
On Friday, a government policy advisory panel on security issues will reconvene for the first time since Abe’s previous stint as prime minister nearly six years ago.
By launching the panel ahead of his summit with U.S. President Barack Obama, scheduled for later this month, Abe is signaling his determination to strengthen the bilateral alliance.
The panel during Abe’s first prime ministership compiled a report on how Japan should be allowed to exercise the right of collective self-defense in four limited cases but failed to submit it to him before he abruptly resigned, citing health reasons.
According to that report, Japan should be allowed to shoot down a ballistic missile flying over Japan possibly toward the United States, to defend U.S. military ships on the high seas that are engaged in joint operations with the Maritime Self-Defense Force, to defend allied troops in U.N.-led peacekeeping operations and to provide logistic support for U.N.-led troops using military force.
The panel, headed then and now by former Ambassador to the U.S. Shunji Yanai, is expected to brief Abe on the 6-year-old report.
“Abe is planning to pick up from where he left off,” said panel member Hisahiko Okazaki, a former ambassador to Thailand.
If Japan wants to engage in collective self-defense, Abe should either declare the nation’s intent to do so to the international community or pass a bill to this effect, according to Okazaki.
A more muscular Japanese-U.S. alliance would send a strong message to China, and Beijing would likely regard it as part of a bilateral effort to check its military rise.
Japan is also relying on U.S. influence in the row over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. When Hillary Rodham Clinton was secretary of state, she warned that Washington will oppose any unilateral action that undermines Japan’s control over the contested islets.
But at the same time, Washington has no desire to raise tensions with Beijing.
Abe initially wanted Obama’s endorsement on lifting Japan’s self-imposed ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense during the upcoming summit, but the U.S., fearing such a move would anger China, reportedly told Japanese officials it doesn’t want Abe bringing it up.
Whether Japan should be allowed to exercise the right has always been a political hot potato in Tokyo.
Under the United Nations Charter, member countries are allowed, in “collective self-defense,” to strike an enemy state that is attacking an ally.
But throughout the postwar period, the government has maintained that the pacifist Constitution prohibits Japan from using this right.
This interpretation has long been recognized as the key obstacle preventing Japan from getting deeper into joint military operations with the United States, and any change in the interpretation would be a significant departure from the postwar pacifist posture.
The LDP wrote such a bill last year when it drafted its own version of a fresh Constitution.
In the Diet, dovish politicians who actually experienced the war have been gradually replaced by younger lawmakers with perceptions similar to Abe’s.
A survey by the Mainichi Shimbun after the December election that brought the Liberal Democratic Party back to power big time found that 72 percent of all Lower House lawmakers think the constitutional interpretation on collective self-defense should be revised. In 2009, only 37 percent of elected lawmakers considered such a revision necessary.
Nippon Ishi no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), which currently holds 54 seats in the Lower House, has called for a radical revision of the Constitution and for exercising the right of collective self-defense, just like Abe.
While revisionist thinking appears to be gaining clout within the Diet, former LDP President Yohei Kono, who has retired from politics, says the government should be focused like a laser on stimulating the economy, not on changing the Constitution.
The 76-year-old Kono, a dove who has fought prominently against constitutional revisionism for decades, also says this rightward shift is happening because so many of the current crop of lawmakers were born after World War II and have no experience with the horrors of war.
“I don’t think politicians understand the price we have to pay if we are going to revise the Constitution or reinterpret Article 9,” he said. “The Constitution has contributed to the peace and regional stability of Japan since the war, which is why we have not revised the Constitution even though creating our own Constitution has been one of the LDP’s goals since the party was launched in 1955.”