The government’s struggle to pass a pair of controversial security bills has made history in more ways than one. But the effort has failed in an important respect: to win public support.
The ruling camp has now spent more than 200 hours debating the bills in both chambers of the Diet, the longest such deliberation since the war, government officials have said.
Still, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s failure to win the support of the nation represents what some call one of the worst political blunders in the postwar period.
Despite the record-breaking deliberations, opinion polls by media outlets consistently show around 60 percent of voters opposing the bills, with some 80 percent of people complaining that the government has yet to provide “sufficient” explanation as to why they are needed.
The ruling camp now aims to have the bills clear the Upper House as early as Thursday night.
“The government has failed in convincing (the nation)” Katsuya Okada, president of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, said during an NHK debate Sunday. The polls, he added, show the nation simply cannot accept the use of the right to collective self-defense.
“About 30 percent are for and 60 percent are against the bills. This situation has not changed” throughout the Diet deliberations, Okada said. Lawmakers have lived and breathed the bills since May.
The core element of the two bills, which Abe submitted to expand the legal scope of overseas operations by the Self-Defense Forces, is to allow the nation to use the right of collective self-defense, or the right to attack a third party that has assaulted an ally even if Japan itself is not under attack.
Opponents say some of the wording in the bills is ambiguous and that this could allow the government to stretch the interpretation, rendering the war-renouncing Constitution toothless.
Meanwhile the contingencies Abe has presented have repeatedly changed shape, only deepening anxiety among voters.
“It’s true, support has not spread yet,” Abe acknowledged during a Upper House session Monday.
Under the Constitution, Japan has been allowed to use force for self-defense only if the nation itself is attacked by an enemy.
But under the bills, Japan would be allowed to attack a third country to support an ally nation — presumably the United States — if three conditions are met: that Japan’s survival is threatened, that there is no alternative, and that the use of force is kept to “the minimum necessary.”
More precisely, according to Abe, the first condition refers to a situation “that threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger of fundamentally overturning people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”
Opponents say the meanings of such abstract words are not clearly defined and the bills are susceptible to over-interpretation — possibly expanding the scope of joint operations with the U.S. military.
Many questions remain unanswered.
Would disruption of oil imports to Japan amid a Middle East crisis allow Japan to engage in a joint military operation with the U.S.? Would loss of economic benefits for Japan alone meet the conditions to use the right of collective self-defense?
Abe has only responded to such questions with even more abstract phrases: The government would “make judgments from a comprehensive viewpoint by considering if it will cause a critical impact on people’s lives,” for example.
To some, this is unacceptable.
“The government says we should leave the decision on starting a war to a ‘comprehensive judgment’ by the government. We should not do that,” Okada said.
He has called for writing into law the prerequisites for force to be used.
One scenario that Abe initially touted as meeting the three conditions was the mining of the Hormuz Strait by Iran, an act that could hit oil shipments to Japan.
But experts say such a blockage is unlikely because Iran itself is reliant on the strait for its own oil exports. Abe later admitted that he did not consider it a realistic scenario.
Then Abe started pointing to a possible military crisis in the South China Sea, despite earlier saying such a situation would be unlikely to affect Japanese trade because cargo ships and oil tankers can bypass the area. The apparent contradiction only deepened suspicion that his primary goal was to pull the teeth from the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, and that his talk of scenarios was just a way to bring that about.
“We suspect (the ruling camp) has developed its argument just to open the way for the use of the right to collective self-defense,” Tadatomo Yoshida, president of the Social Democratic Party, said during Sunday’s TV debate.
Abe and many experts have, however, argued that the Japan-U.S. military alliance would be critically damaged if Tokyo refuses to defend the U.S. military in a crisis threatening Japan.
Under the security treaty, the U.S. must defend Japan, but Japanese troops do not have to defend the U.S. military. Tokyo is obliged, however, to grant Washington routine use of military bases.
“It makes a great deal of sense for Japan to strengthen the Japan-U.S. military alliance” by enacting the bills, said Koji Murata, professor of international politics and president of Doshisha University in Kyoto.
Murata pointed out that China’s economic and military power is rapidly growing, while American influence in the Asia-Pacific region has shrunk in recent years.
“If you ask the opinions of experts on security affairs — not constitutional scholars — I believe many will have positive views about the bills in question,” Murata told a public hearing at the Upper House on July 23.
Abe, meanwhile, is trying not to exacerbate tensions with Beijing and has stopped short of citing a clash with China as a possible scenario during his Diet contributions. He has referred instead only obliquely to its growing military power.
Indeed, China has been the No. 1 trading partner with Japan in recent years and it would be too risky, both economically and politically, for Abe to provoke Beijing by openly discussing a scenario of war with China.
Instead he has cited North Korea’s nuclear ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development as one of the main military threats to the nation. His decision to highlight this rather than the threat from China has contributed to the confusion.
Meanwhile, even with the enactment of the bills, Japan still would be unable to fully exercise the right of collective self-defense, although the United Nations bestows the right on all member countries.
Senior government officials maintain that no major country attaches such strict conditions to using the right of collective self-defense.
During an Upper House session Monday, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida pointed out that among the U.S., Britain and Australia, none has laws that “set conditions for use of the right to self-defense.”
“I believe the three conditions would work as an unparalleled brake” to Japan’s use of the right of collective self-defense, argued Masahisa Sato, a former SDF officer turned Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker, during the same Upper House session.
Abe appears to believe that time is on his side, although the first political test for him will come in next summer’s Upper House election.
The Self-Defense Forces, which were set up in 1954, were initially dismissed by the general public and the vast majority of constitutional scholars as unconstitutional. Now, however, the forces enjoy widespread support from the vast majority of the public.
Mainstream, liberal intellectuals and students also opposed the revision in 1960 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty, which was proposed and pushed by then Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, Abe’s grandfather and role model.
Likewise, a majority of the nation now admits that the treaty was and is vital for peace and security of Japan.
“As times passes, (support) will no doubt spread among the public,” Abe told the Upper House session Monday.