The pacifist credo that has given modern Japan its distinctive security framework is moving increasingly into the spotlight as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prepares to shake up the postwar regime.
Dissatisfied with the restrictions imposed by the Constitution, Abe aims to implement changes to enable Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense and set new rules on arms exports.
The plans are part of his desire to redefine security policy at a time when China’s military buildup and aerial and maritime assertiveness are raising alarms in East Asia.
“Someone has to decide, because Japan cannot be locked inside a box created 40 or 50 years ago,” Abe said of the right to collective self-defense during a television program Sunday.
Whatever his motives may be, Abe has to clear the hurdles imposed by the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9.
The article defines Japan’s restrictive security arrangements and limits Self-Defense Forces operations literally to defensive purposes, renouncing the nation’s right to resort to war.
But some experts worry that Japan could lose its defense-oriented policies founded on the constraints of Article 9, a clause that forbids the use of force to settle international disputes.
Abe appears eager to use the 150-day Diet session from Friday to make his vision clear and seek cross-party support, even as New Komeito, the coalition partner of his Liberal Democratic Party, is reluctant to support his stance on security.
“Frankly, it will be imperative to revise the Constitution if Mr. Abe wants to achieve his vision under the slogan of making Japan ‘a contributor to peace.’ In reality, however, he is trying to get around it,” said Miho Aoi, a professor of law at Gakushuin University.
“We could see an about-face in terms of security policy from now, and the danger is it will be inconsistent with what we have sought under Article 9,” Aoi added.
At focus is the government interpretation of Article 9. Japan has argued that it has the right of collective self-defense but is not allowed to exercise it, given the view that doing so would go beyond the minimum allowed under the Constitution to defend itself.
Abe is now seeking to alter that interpretation so Japan can use armed strength to defend an ally under attack, even if Japan itself has not been directly hit.
Lifting the self-imposed ban would mean a step forward in Abe’s initiative to make Japan “normal” — but critics express concern that the country could be dragged into a war, an argument that supporters dismiss as unrealistic.
Enabling exercise of the right will bridge the gap between what Japan can and should do under the Japan-U.S. security alliance, given they could act together as a counterbalance against the rise of China, supporters say.
“The scope of SDF operations would be limited (even if the ban is lifted). What we need to remember, however, is that the SDF can conduct surveillance activities and military drills with countries like the Philippines and Vietnam that have territorial disputes with China,” said Narushige Michishita, associate professor of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
“The question is whether Japan will continue to pursue isolation (due to the limits of the Constitution), or internationalism that would require the country to shoulder more costs as a member of the international community,” Michishita added.
In addition to collective self-defense, the government is mulling new rules on arms exports to mark a departure from its restrictive stance under the pacifist Constitution.
Supporters say arms exports will help strengthen psychological and security bonds with foreign troops, and rejuvenate the domestic defense industry that has manufactured and sold weapons exclusively to the SDF.
But it could do more harm than good to an industry largely shut off from the world, critics argue, and weapons falling into the wrong hands will undermine the spirit of the Constitution and hurt Japan’s status as a pacifist state.
Japan adopted “three principles” on arms exports in 1967 to block the transfer of weapons to communist states, countries subject to embargoes under U.N. resolutions, and those involved in international conflicts.
The rules became a virtual blanket ban in 1976, with some exceptions made by past governments.
In 2011, Japan eased the rules to allow exports for humanitarian and peaceful purposes, and make it easier to take part in joint development and production of weapons.
Abe’s desire for Japan to gain military strength so it can stand on an equal footing with other countries appears out of sync with the global trend of seeking peace through nonmilitary means, Gakushuin professor Aoi said.
“We need to ask ourselves whether we really want to sacrifice what we have built over the years so easily rather than treasure it.”