What a person says, even if it is a fragmentary remark, can shed light on his or her innermost thoughts and basic attitudes on important issues. A series of recent remarks by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe serve as a case in point.
During a session of the Upper House Budget Committee in late March, he was asked by a member of Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) about the Self-Defense Forces’ joint exercises with armed forces of other countries. He replied that such drills greatly contribute to “raising the transparency of our armed forces,” instead of “the Self-Defense Forces.” He then quickly dropped the phrase “armed forces” and said that many countries appear to understand that the SDF is well-disciplined. But his use of the term contravened the government’s traditional position that the SDF “is different from armed forces as understood under a common idea,” as he himself stated during his first term as prime minister,
That stance derives from war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, which declares that Japan will never maintain “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential” and that “the right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” Based on this principle, Japan has taken a “defense-only defense” posture, that is, the nation will act only when it is attacked, and with the minimum necessary force. The government has maintained that Japan cannot have “war potential” and therefore the SDF cannot possess offensive weapons such as aircraft carriers, heavy bombers and long-range missiles, and refrains from referring to the SDF as “armed forces.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, however, said there was nothing wrong with what Abe stated, noting that the SDF is a military force under international law. Abe’s remark at least shows that he does not seem to care much about the constitutional principle that restrains the SDF’s armaments and actions. It may also have exposed his desire to change the SDF into an “ordinary” military force by revising the Constitution to eliminate its restrictions on Japan’s military activities.
Even if the SDF is treated abroad as an armed force so if its members are ever taken prisoner they will be protected by the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war, it is a duty for politicians and national leaders to follow the constitutional principle and to handle matters related to the SDF accordingly. Abe should address whether his decision to expand the SDF’s missions overseas under the right to collective self-defense or to support other militaries in international conflict is true to the principle.
Apart from this affair, another episode helps expose the prime minister’s basic thinking about modern Constitution-based politics. Hours after dissolving the Lower House on Nov. 18 for a snap election, Abe appeared on a TBS TV program. He complained that four of the five people in street interviews aired during that program made negative comments about the effects of his economic policy. He said: “This is wrong. (Other) voices are not reflected at all” and “You have chosen (interviewees in a purposeful manner).” Two days later, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party delivered a written request to the six Tokyo-based TV broadcasters urging them to report on the general election campaign in a fair manner. It even touched on details like selection of guest speakers and themes, time distribution for each of them, frequency of remarks by them and street interviews, and called for “ensuring fairness” in these matters.
In a session of the Lower House Budget Committee in early March, a member of the Democratic Party of Japan criticized Abe’s remarks on the TBS program and the LDP’s letter. Abe responded, “Expressing my thoughts there [during the program] is a very act of exercising the right to freedom of speech.” He does not seem to understand that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech is meant to protect citizens from the powers that be. His belief that a government leader complaining about the content of a TV program falls into the realm of freedom of speech is a topsy-turvy argument.
Abe’s statement brings to mind another remark he made in a session of the same Diet committee in February 2014. At that time, he said the idea that a constitution is meant to limit the power of the state belongs to the past when monarchs had absolute power. This taken together with his remarks on freedom of speech, it seems that Abe truly does not understand the basic concept that a constitution is designed first and foremost to limit the power of the state. It is no suprise that someone who holds such a misguided idea about the role constitutions play in democracies is eager to revise Japan’s postwar Constitution, which upholds the democratic ideal that sovereign power resides with the people.
Any public remark by a prime minister carries weight, but there are occasions when Abe does not appear to be aware of this. In a session of the same Diet committee in late February in which a DPJ member asked farm minster Koya Nishikawa about a questionable political donation to an LDP chapter he leads, which eventually cost Nishikawa his Cabinet position, Abe suddenly heckled the DPJ lawmaker, saying loudly “Nikkyoso (Japan Teachers’ Union)!” and “What about Nikkyoso?” Even the committee’s chairman, Tadamori Oshima of the LDP, had to caution the prime minister about his jeering. The next day, Abe explained why he heckled the opposition lawmaker. He claimed that the teachers union is receiving a government subsidy and that some DPJ lawmakers are getting political donations from the Japan Education Center in Tokyo, whose building is often used for training and study meetings for teachers. It turned out, however, that the union is not receiving a government subsidiary and that the center has not been making donations to DPJ members. Abe is known for his dislike of the teachers union. But what he said about the union and the Japan Education Center was very irresponsible. Although he later admitted his remark was inaccurate and said he “regretted” making it, some damage had been done. Moreover, it must be questioned whether it is appropriate for a prime minister to heckle in the Diet.
Sometimes it appears that logic eludes Abe when he pushes his ideas. In his speech during the graduation ceremony at the National Defense Academy late last month, he fought back against criticism that his decision to enable Japan to engage in collective self-defense increases the risk of embroiling the nation in armed conflicts, saying his detractors are engaging in “irresponsible discourse intended to fuel people’s concerns,” and that “the history of the past 70 years has proven that this repeated criticism is nonsense,” referring to past opposition to government moves to expand the SDF’s roles. Abe is willfully ignoring the fact that during the entire postwar period such opposition helped to ensure that the Constitution continued to maintain strict limitations on Japan’s military activities — which his own administration is now seeking to expand.
It is all the more important for every citizen to pay close attention to remarks made by the prime minister and discern the true thinking behind his words.