The Abe Cabinet on Thursday appointed Ambassador to France Ichiro Komatsu as the new head of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s intention is clear: to pave the way for changing the government’s traditional interpretation of the Constitution’s Article 9. Under this interpretation, Japan cannot exercise the right to collective self-defense — the right to use military power to repel attacks on a country that has close ties with Japan even if Japan is not attacked.
Mr. Komatsu is in favor of changing the current interpretation so that Japan can exercise the right, and Mr. Abe plans to submit a bill to the Diet to accomplish this. He apparently hopes that the appointment of Mr. Komatsu will be helpful in getting the Cabinet Legislation Bureau’s endorsement for this move, which would have the same effect of changing Article 9.
Although Mr. Abe appears to want to exercise the right to collective self-defense in limited cases, his approach skirts the normal procedure to revise the Constitution. It undermines the principles of constitution-based parliamentary democracy.
If Mr. Abe goes through with his plan, the reputation of Japan as a country with a constitutional government will be irreparably damaged. Lawmakers of the Liberal Democratic Party also should consider whether his approach is constitutionally acceptable and persuade him to abandon his plan.
The main task of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau is to examine whether bills submitted by the government to the Diet conform to the Constitution and to give legal advice to the Cabinet. Another important task is to help the successive governments work out a stable, long-standing interpretation of the Constitution.
The head of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau plays an important role in interpreting the Constitution. Usually the head of the bureau is selected from among bureaucrats who have worked at the bureau. This process helps ensure that the bureau head learns the precedents of legal and constitutional interpretations that have developed through the bureau’s work.
Although Mr. Komatsu did the work of interpreting treaties at the Foreign Ministry, he has no experience at the Cabinet Legislation Bureau. His appointment as its head is highly unusual.
It must be remembered that with the advice of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, successive LDP governments expressed a view — either in Diet sessions or directly to lawmakers who submitted written questions — that although Japan has the right to collective self-defense under international law, including the United Nations Charter, the exercise of the right exceeds the limits set by the “no-war” Article 9 of the Constitution and, therefore, Japan cannot exercise the right.
Mr. Abe’s plan would overturn this interpretation, which is based on repeated discussions in the Diet and serves as the basis of laws related to national security. He must realize that exercising the right to collective self-defense would completely change the nature of the postwar Japanese state based on the principle of a “defense-only defense” security policy, and would raise regional tensions, putting Japan’s security at greater risk.