Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, after receiving a report from his private advisory panel on national security legislation on May 15, appealed to the public by insisting that the government’s long-standing interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution needs to be changed to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense. From the viewpoint of both constitutional theories and national security perspectives, Abe’s arguments are either irrational or empty.
For more than half a century, the government has interpreted the Constitution to mean that Japan can use force solely to defend itself against foreign invasion. This established interpretation is widely recognized both at home and in the international community. The Self-Defense Forces do possess powerful military capabilities, but the understanding that Japan would not use the capabilities to attack other countries has been one of the foundations of regional order in Asia.
Enabling the SDF to take part in conflicts between other countries amounts to effectively revising Article 9. A Cabinet should not carry out such a revision merely by reinterpreting the Constitution. If such an attempt is allowed to be pushed through, Japan will no longer be a country governed under the rule of law but a country ruled by the whim of government leaders.
In the May 15 news conference, Abe argued that Japan needs to be able to engage in collective self-defense so that the SDF can provide protection to U.S. naval vessels carrying Japanese evacuees from enemy attacks in the sea near Japan — an obvious reference to a military emergency in the Korean Peninsula. His allusion to a possible emergency in the Korean Peninsula as an example speaks volumes about the serious risks involved in what he is trying to do.
If the United States engaged in a military clash with North Korea and Japan joined the U.S. military in the attack on North Korea, Japan would naturally be considered an enemy by North Korea.
Although Abe says that Japan’s lifting of the ban on collective self-defense will boost its deterrence against possible attacks on it, the very concept of deterrence is meaningless if Abe is assuming a military contingency in the Korean Peninsula. If North Korea is involved in a full-scale war with the U.S., it would not hesitate to attack Japan, driven by a “Let’s go to the grave together” resolve.
Given the fact that Japan has a large number of nuclear power plants on its Sea of Japan coast, conventional weapons attacks on Japan would have the same devastating effects as nuclear attacks.
It would be quite stupid of Abe, who claims that his endeavor is meant to protect the lives of Japanese people, to not take such a war scenario into consideration. If he was trying to intentionally hide such risks, his attempt is so fraudulent that it is unacceptable in a democracy.
While it is easy for me to criticize the prime minister for his policy direction, another aspect of the situation surrounding the Abe administration leaves me with a major question as a political scientist. In a Kyodo News poll taken right after the May 15 news conference, 48 percent of those polled opposed Japan lifting the ban on collective self-defense versus 39 percent who support such a move. Still, the same survey showed that Abe’s Cabinet continues to enjoy an approval rating of more than 50 percent. Why?
Plausible reasons include the continuing positive effects of his Abenomics policies as well as the dearth of other viable leaders who could possibly replace him. But aside from these logical reasons, we cannot ignore the element of national sentiment. In the election for the European Union Parliament, anti-EU rightwing or nationalist parties gained ground in many countries. As the economy becomes increasingly globalized, the power of individual states is on the wane. But people try all the more to cling to symbols like nation or race.
A similar problem exists in Japan. A lot of Japanese do not really identify with the nation’s official principle of pursuing harmonious international relations. Even though they sense some danger in Abe’s push for transforming Japan’s security policies, many people in this country appear to feel greater affinity with the nationalistic sentiment that Abe personifies.
The seemingly contradictory popular support for the Abe administration underlines the limitations of political science in its attempt to analyze politics by means of theories and logic.
Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University.