The blowback from Shiga

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has acknowledged that his Cabinet’s reinterpretation of the Constitution to enable the nation to engage in collective self-defense — taking military action to defend other countries being attacked even when Japan itself is not under attack — has not won sufficient public understanding, following the defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party-backed candidate in the Shiga gubernatorial election on Sunday. The popular approval ratings of his Cabinet in various media polls also plunged in the wake of the July 1 Cabinet decision, which marked a major departure from Japan’s postwar defense posture. Abe should realize that this is the price his administration pays for neglecting to seek a mandate from voters in his push to widen the scope of Japan’s military role beyond its borders.

Without going through the process to amend the Constitution, which would have required two-thirds approval of both chambers of the Diet plus majority support in a national referendum, the prime minister lifted the decades-long ban on Japan engaging in collective self-defense by changing the interpretation of the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution in a Cabinet decision after weeks of closed-door talks between the LDP and its coalition partner New Komeito.

The outcome of the Shiga election, in which a former trade ministry bureaucrat backed by the ruling coalition lost out to an ex-Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker, may also have been influenced by other factors, including the problem of sexist taunts by LDP members aimed at female politicians in the Diet and the Tokyo metropolitan assembly. The winner, Taizo Mikazuki, has vowed to carry on outgoing incumbent Gov. Yukiko Kada’s nonnuclear agenda just as the Abe administration seeks to brush aside lingering public opposition to restarting idled nuclear power plants nationwide.

Still, Abe must realize that the people at large are not convinced by his argument that Japan needs a wider international military role for its own self-defense. He needs to fully explain to the public why he believes engaging in collective self-defense is essential for Japan’s security before seeking the Diet’s approval of legislation to implement the Cabinet decision.

The prime minister has repeatedly emphasized that Japan will engage in collective self-defense only in a minimum limited scope needed for its own self-defense. During a Diet debate on Monday, Abe said that Japan will not take part in collective self-defense as other countries do, adding that further expansion of its international military role would require amending the Constitution.

These remarks contrast with what he told the Australian Parliament last week regarding his Cabinet’s decision during a visit to Canberra. There he stated that Japan “is now working to change its legal basis for security so that we can act jointly with other countries in as many ways as possible.” It almost appears as if Abe was saying two different things as he addressed the international community on the one hand and his more skeptical domestic audience on the other.

In their rush to win over the reluctant junior coalition partner, Abe and the LDP set down conditions for Japan engaging in collective self-defense operations. According to the Cabinet decision, Japan can take part in the “minimum necessary use of force” when not only an armed attack on Japan but also an attack on another country with which it has close ties “poses a clear danger to threaten our country’s very existence and fundamentally overturn people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” and when there is no other appropriate means to ensure the nation’s survival and protect its people.

Abe told the Diet on Monday that the government will determine whether Japan faces such “clear danger” in any future situation by judging the probability of the “destruction from war” reaching Japan and the gravity of the losses that could be incurred by the people based on such factors as the attacking party’s intentions and capability, as well as the location, scope, mode and the development of the military situation.

The prime minister emphasized that the security alliance with the United States is “crucially important” for Japan, and said it is “highly possible” that a situation arising in relation to the alliance could meet the conditions for Japan to engage in collective self-defense. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida also said that an armed attack on the U.S. “will be an attack against the activities to protect people in our country and their lives” — indicating that attacks on the U.S. could prompt Japan to take action to defend its ally.

Abe also said Japan would be able to join operations to sweep mines placed in the Strait of Hormuz during a military conflict because a “lack of oil supplies could critically affect people’s lives and thereby threaten the existence of our nation.” Kishida noted that Japan could engage in minesweeping operations in the territorial waters of other countries.

The prime minister went on to say that Japan could take part in collective security operations under the United Nations as long as the conditions spelled out in the Cabinet decision are met — with a view to a situation where minesweeping operations are carried out on the basis of a U.N. Security Council resolution. But participation in collective security — a measure of punishment imposed by U.N. members against a party that breaches international peace — has been clearly ruled out in the government’s interpretation of the Constitution so far. It was never agreed on in the LDP-New Komeito talks and was not included in Abe’s new Cabinet decision.

The Diet debate alone illustrates how the Cabinet decision gives wide discretion to future administrations on the scope of Japan’s military roles beyond its borders. The Abe administration needs to realize that people are rightly worried about how the Cabinet decision will affect the nation’s pacifist posture that has been maintained throughout the postwar years.