The Abe administration, in a Cabinet decision made on Tuesday — the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Self-Defense Forces — changed the government’s longstanding interpretation of the Constitution so that Japan can exercise the right to collective self-defense. The decision not only effectively undermines the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 — which has prevented Japan from being involved in international military conflicts in the postwar period — but also violates the principles of rule of law under the Constitution.
The Cabinet decision, pending related changes to relevant laws, paves the way for the SDF to use force overseas to defend Japan’s allies even if Japan itself is not under attack. In other words, it allows Japan to take part in conflicts abroad, potentially putting SDF members in harm’s way.
The Abe administration’s new interpretation of the Constitution also does not rule out Japan’s participation in United Nations-led collective security operations, which are mainly aimed at punishing countries that breach international peace — a concept different from self-defense. This contradicts what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated at a news conference following Tuesday’s Cabinet decision: “Japan will never take part in fighting such as has taken place in the Gulf War or the Iraq War.” Abandoning the traditional “defense-only defense” position, the administration’s move marks a clear departure from the postwar Japan’s basic defense posture.
Equally troubling, the Abe administration is gutting Article 9 without going through the constitutional procedure for revising the nation’s highest law. It should be noted that Abe’s decision was based solely on a set of recommendations by his hand-picked private advisory panel, which had no legal authority, and a series of closed-door meetings between his Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner New Komeito, which totaled only roughly 13 hours over the past several weeks. In the process, no substantial Diet deliberations were held and there were virtually no efforts on the part of the administration to thoroughly explain to the public what Japan engaging in collective self-defense would actually mean for the nation.
It is deplorable that in his news conference, Abe kept silent on the core meaning of collective self-defense — Japan using force in an overseas conflict even if Japan is not under attack — and gave a misleading explanation that Japan will not use force for the sake of defending another country, hiding the central point of collective self-defense, that is, using the SDF to defend another country. He said that his administration has focused on the issue of what Japan needs to do to protect citizens’ lives and peaceful existence under situations that could actually transpire. But his argument also has the effect of duping people about the essence of collective self-defense.
The decades-long interpretation of the Constitution — which limited the SDF’s role to repelling direct attacks on Japan and banned Japan’s participation in collective self-defense — was based on Diet deliberations over many years. It set a maximum limit on Japan’s use of force allowable under Article 9, which states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” and that “the right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”
By simply changing the interpretation of the Constitution to achieve its policy objectives, the Abe administration is violating the status of the Constitution as the nation’s supreme law to which all other laws and government decisions must conform. The move will serve as a dangerous precedent for Japan’s democracy that must be based on the rule of law under the Constitution. By taking cues from the Tuesday decision, future administrations may try to make render clauses in the Constitution meaningless by merely reinterpreting the clauses to fit their agenda through Cabinet decisions. Abe insisted Tuesday that the Cabinet decision does not harm the normative nature of the Constitution. This is a lie.
The Cabinet decision on Tuesday set down new conditions for Japan’s use of force — including in situations where the nation engages in collective self-defense. The government has so far followed the principle that Japan would use minimum necessary force to repel an “emergent and unjust” attack on the country, on the condition that no other means are available to repel the attack. Under the new conditions, Japan can use force if there is an attack on it or on a country with which it shares close ties, and if there is a “clear danger” that this attack poses a threat to Japan’s existence and that Japanese people’s “rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” are “fundamentally overturned.” The minimum necessary use of force under such conditions is allowed under the Constitution as an act of self-defense, the administration said, adding that there will be cases in which such use of force “can be based on the right to collective self-defense under international laws.”
Abe said Tuesday that the new conditions are fundamentally the same as the traditional principle for the defense-only defense posture and serve as a clear brake to stop escalation in Japan’s overseas military missions.
But in reality the new conditions are qualitatively different from the former principle in that they incorporate collective self-defense. They cannot effectively serve as such a brake because it will be up to the administration to determine the degree of the impact of a particular situation on Japan’s national security. And once Japan actually takes part in a military operation by invoking the right to collective self-defense, it will become a party to the conflict and a potential target of attacks by enemy forces — whether or not Tokyo calls its operation “minimum use of force.”
Given Japan’s security alliance with the United States, it is also questionable that the government can make an independent decision to refuse to assist the U.S. militarily when the latter gets involved in an international conflict.
On Tuesday, Abe also repeated his contention that enabling Japan to engage in collective self-defense would raise Japan’s deterrence and thus “will help reduce the chances of Japan becoming involved in war.” However, he did not address concerns that Japan’s new “proactive” defense posture would likely increase friction with its neighbors — particularly China — thereby raising regional tensions and worsening the security environment around Japan.
The Abe administration has unilaterally forced through a major change in the nation’s defense posture and effectively gutted Article 9 without following formal procedures for amending the Constitution, which involves gaining the approval of two-thirds of the members of both houses of the Diet and then a majority of voters in a public referendum.
Lawmakers and ordinary citizens alike should make strive to bring a halt to the administration’s dangerous move to allow Japan to engage in collective self-defense when it attempts to revise related laws in the Diet.