Japan today marks the 67th anniversary of the enforcement of its postwar Constitution under extraordinary circumstances: the moves of the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe threaten the principles of constitutional democracy.
The administration in December had the Diet enact the state secrets law, which expands the scope of government secrets almost without limits and severely limits the people’s right to know and their access to government information — the foundation of democracy. It is now trying to overturn the government’s long-standing interpretation of the Constitution that bans the exercise of the right to collective self-defense by simply eliminating the interpretation rather than attempt to amend the Constitution itself.
Exercizing the right to collective self-defense would allow Japan to engage in military operations to defend allies under attack even when Japan itself is not under attack. This would run counter to the war-renouncing principle expressed in the Constitution’s preamble and Article 9.
People need to be fully aware of the implications of what the administration is trying to do to the Constitution.
People also need to closely monitor the activities of their local governments, some of which have begun to stop supporting citizens’ meetings of civic groups on such issues as the Constitution and nuclear energy on the grounds that local governments need to maintain political neutrality. Such decisions by local governments could stifle discussion and study by citizens on important political and social issues, undermining the healthy growth of civil society and democracy.
According to a recent NHK survey of 121 prefectures and municipalities, local governments in fiscal 2013 called for changes to events planned by civic groups or refused to let them use public facilities in 22 cases, 11 of which concerned issues related to the Constitution and seven on nuclear power.
What is most worrisome about the current situation is that Abe does not seem to understand the importance of government under constitutional rule, in which government powers are limited by a supreme law that trumps all regular laws.
In a modern democracy, a constitution exists to bind the powers of the government. But Abe says that such a view of the constitution is outdated and belongs to the time when monarchs held absolute power. His Liberal Democratic Party’s draft for constitutional revision clearly leans in the direction of limiting various rights — such as freedom of expression and assembly — and strengthening the state’s powers.
Since returning to power in December 2012, Abe has attempted to revise Article 96 of the Constitution as the first step leading to a revision of the war-renouncing Article 9. The article says that an amendment to the Constitution must be initiated with a minimum two-thirds vote of all members of the two Diet chambers and then submitted to the people for ratification, which requires the affirmative vote of a majority of all votes cast at a special referendum.
Abe sought to lower the threshold of the Diet vote by proposing that it be a simple majority. While he abandoned the attempt in the face of strong public opposition and insufficient support in the Diet, amending Article 96 would have made it much easier for administrations to alter the Constitution’s principles, including basic human rights.
Abe is now seeking to eliminate the ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense through a Cabinet decision on the strength of recommendations to be announced soon by a private advisory body — which has no legal authority — completely skipping Diet deliberations.
The government’s current interpretation that bans Japan from engaging in collective self-defense, which was formally adopted as a Cabinet decision in 1981, is based on numerous rounds of Diet discussions over many years. If the ban is overturned, Japan will be able to engage in military operations to defend allies — even if Japan is not directly under attack — as long as the government determines that the contingency threatens the security of Japan.
The preamble and Article 9 of the Constitution expresses Japan’s determination that it will never again tread the path of militarism and will never again wage a war of aggression.
Abe’s attempt undermines the “defense-only defense” posture — the embodiment of Japan’s determination in the field of security and defense. It runs counter to the government’s long-standing policy that if Japan is invaded, it will repel the invasion by using the minimum force necessary on the condition that there are no other means to repel the attack.
What Abe is trying to do is nothing less than an attempt to nullify the second section of Article 9, which says, “The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”
A nationwide poll carried out April 25 through 27 by Tokyo Shimbun shows that 62 percent of those polled oppose a revision of Article 9, up from 58 percent in June 2013, while just 24 percent support the revision, down from the earlier 33 percent. Fifty percent oppose Abe’s move to drop the ban on engaging in collective self-defense by changing the constitutional interpretation, while just 34 percent support it.
Clearly a majority of citizens oppose Abe’s efforts to overturn the government’s traditional interpretation of Article 9, which has enabled Japan to enjoy nearly 70 years of peace and prosperity. He should heed their sentiment and focus instead on improving ties with Japan’s closest neighbors.