Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not even bother to argue that the security legislation proposed by his administration has won public support just before the bills were railroaded through the special Lower House committee on Wednesday — perhaps because various media opinion polls have clearly indicated otherwise, no matter what he and other members of the administration insist. He conceded that the legislation has not yet been “fully understood” by the people — which did not stop his ruling coalition from pushing the bills through the Lower House on Thursday as much of the opposition camp boycotted the vote.
Earlier Abe had said popular opposition was likewise strong when the Japan-U.S. security treaty was revised in 1960, under the administration of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, and when the law paving the way for the dispatch of Self-Defense Forces to United Nations peacekeeping operations was enacted in 1992, but that both steps have since won sufficient public support. He appeared to be implying that he’s confident that the security legislation, which lifts Japan’s self-imposed ban on acts of collective self-defense under the war-renouncing Constitution and significantly expands the scope of SDF’s overseas missions, would similarly be endorsed by the people once it’s enacted and implemented.
The problem with the security legislation is not that it’s unpopular among the public, but that it doesn’t appear to be what the Abe administration says it is — along with its questionable legal foundation under the Constitution. The government kept saying that the legislation will enable Japan to take military action in collective self-defense in minimal, limited ways only when the nation’s own survival is threatened. But the bills fail to set clear parameters on the scope of such actions that Japan can take, leaving it to the discretion of future administration in power.
Key members of the administration and Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party say the legislation is not inconsistent with the government’s past position, which was backed by a Supreme Court ruling in 1959, that the war-renouncing Constitution does not deny Japan the right to take minimum necessary action to defend itself. The legislation allows Japan to resort to “minimum necessary use of force” when an armed attack on a country with which Japan has close ties “threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn the people’s right to life, liberty and happiness” and “there is no other appropriate means available to repel the attack.”
In the course of the Lower House deliberations, the government conceded that the conditions that trigger Japan’s action in collective self-defense need to be kept abstract so the nation can respond to future contingencies. When pressed to specify criteria on how the government would judge whether a particular situation poses a “threat to Japan’s survival,” Abe effectively refused to answer, saying, “No government leader in the world would disclose (the nation’s) policy on what particular situation would prompt it to use force.”
As one of the few scenarios of Japan taking collective self-defense action that Abe said the government has in mind, the prime minister repeatedly referred to the possibility of Maritime Self-Defense Force joining a minesweeping operation in the Strait of Hormuz in the event of a Middle East contingency, saying that a disruption in the supply of oil from the region could throw Japan’s economy into disarray and threaten the nation’s survival. Abe’s insistence on such a scenario itself highlights that the “conditions” for Japan’s use of force leave broad room for discretion by the government.
Another example that Abe cited was Japan defending U.S. naval vessels in case of an emergency over the Korean Peninsula. During a session of the Lower House panel in late June, Abe said it’s possible for Japan to determine that its own survival is threatened — and therefore take military action — when an enemy missile is fired on a U.S. vessel guarding against such an attack. But after an opposition lawmaker charged that Japan’s decision would be too late if it is to be made only after the missile has been fired, the prime minister said Japan may decide to use force “when there is a clear danger” that a U.S. vessel guarding against missile attacks or transporting Japanese evacuees could come under attack. Such altering explanations raise the question whether the government itself has a clear idea as to what would constitute a “threat to Japan’s survival.”
The LDP-Komeito ruling coalition cut off the Lower House deliberations on the security legislation on the grounds that more than 110 hours had already been spent discussing the bills since they were tabled to the Diet in May. But in fact, the Diet debate raised additional questions and doubts about the legislation, including its shaky legal grounds under the Constitution — as pointed out by large numbers of expert scholars — which the administration has merely brushed aside.
With the legislation now turned over to the Upper House, the Abe administration and the ruling coalition may have effectively secured its enactment during the current Diet session, which has been extended through Sept. 27. Even if the deliberations stall in the Upper House, 60 days without a vote on the legislation will render the bills effectively rejected in the chamber — an outcome that the Lower House can override with a two-thirds majority in a re-vote. But the ample time reserved for the legislation in the Upper House should be used to fully expose the problems of the bills, which the government must then address. The legislation must not be enacted solely on the ruling coalition’s majority strength.