Prime Minister Shinzo Abe flatly denies as a “misconception” the view that Japan will return to being a country that wages war if it sidesteps war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.
But as he tries to justify his drive to revamp the nation’s security policy by removing the government’s long-standing ban on collective self-defense, or defending allies under armed attack, some people have found themselves with more questions than answers.
“By reworking the legal framework to cope with any contingencies, we can bolster deterrence, avoid future conflicts and prevent our country from being dragged into a war,” Abe asserted Thursday.
Abe made the remarks after his 14-member advisory panel on the issue handed him a report the same day urging the government to change its interpretation of Article 9 to legalize the use of collective self-defense to address mounting regional threats.
For skeptics, one key question is whether Abe should be viewed as a nationalist who had no qualms about provoking Japan’s neighbors by visiting war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, or a pacifist who has learned the lessons of Japan’s World War II defeat and is eager to foster global peace.
In line with the panel’s recommendations, lawmakers were told to examine whether Article 9 should be reinterpreted. The article states that the Japanese people renounce war as a sovereign right and “the threat or use of force” as a means of settling international disputes. It also says “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” The government has interpreted this to mean that, while Japan has the right to collective self-defense under the United Nations, exercising it is banned by Article 9.
Proponents of lifting the ban say security threats from an increasingly aggressive China and North Korea’s nuclear strides warrant this change and stronger defenses, implying that either country might decide to attack Japan’s ally, the United States. Opponents are wary of leaving Japan’s pacifist stance behind for a more militaristic one that has a greater chance of leading to conflict.
“He’s left the impression that he is not critical about war, as he went to Yasukuni Shrine, and now we have the issue of collective self-defense, so basically it is an outgrowth of that,” said Sven Saaler, an associate professor of modern Japanese history at Sophia University.
“I don’t think he wants Japan to go to war, and it’s more about preparing for every scenario, but if he proceeds with this and goes on to revise Article 9, then it will trigger a sense of danger,” Saaler said, calling the pacifist clause Japan’s “promise” to the world. “It may be a domestic issue but how the world will see (it) is also an important factor to consider.”
Abe has tried to change his hawkish image on the global stage, but his contentious visit to Yasukuni still drew rebukes from China and South Korea, which have tasted Japan’s aggression. The shrine honors Class-A war criminals along with millions of war dead.
Abe’s panel concluded that Article 9, “as it is,” can be interpreted to mean collective self-defense falls under “the minimum” level of force necessary for self-defense allowed under the Constitution. Abe asked the ruling bloc of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito to start debating this sensitive and divisive assertion to see if common ground can be found.
“I’m not sure what kinds of steps it (the government) will take from now but it will be an unprecedented and yet important one,” Shunji Yanai, former Japanese ambassador to the United States and head of the panel, said.
The Constitution has never been amended since it took effect in 1947, with a key member of Abe’s security panel describing it as “so entrenched” that “it is reasonable to change its interpretation.”
Government officials say Japan will explain what the aim of the broad reworking of security policy is to dispel concern that Japan could revert to militarism.
Saaler, a German expert well-versed in history, sees some similarities between Japan and Germany, especially in their transition from aggressors to pacifist members of the international community. But he said that how to come to terms with history is different for each.
“Reconciliation (between aggressors and victims) is a process that takes a long time … and Germany has continued to make apologies over a long period of time and so has Japan,” Saaler said. “But when the issue of collective self-defense is put together with (Abe) going to Yasukuni, it raises doubts.”