With the launch next Monday of a special intraparty panel directly under his lead, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party are ready to kick off their full-fledged drive to reinterpret the Constitution to allow Japan to help defend its allies.

Abe says he wants Japan to make a more “proactive contribution to peace,” and to do this he plans to change the government’s official interpretation of war-renouncing Article 9 so the nation can exercise the right of collective self-defense, which means coming to the aid of Japanese allies who come under military attack.

Previous governments have maintained that Japan can’t exercise the right to collective self-defense, which Article 51 of the United Nations Charter defines as an inherent right, because Article 9 of the Constitution prohibits Japan from using force to resolve international disputes and bans it from maintaining “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.”

Yet some politicians and experts note Japan already has policies in place that cross that boundary.

“In a way, Japan has been effectively exercising the right,” said Masashi Nishihara, president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security.

“Rather than reinterpreting the Constitution, the government should make exceptions in the way they have done with the arms exports ban,” Nishihara said, referring to past instances in which the government, in the form of chief Cabinet secretary statements, allowed certain exceptions to the limits on exporting weapons.

Despite what is stated in the Constitution, Japan has supported U.S. military operations by providing logistic support and has taken part in some international peacekeeping efforts.

Back in 1960, in the course of revising the Japan-U.S. defense treaty, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi — Abe’s grandfather — said that even allowing a foreign nation to maintain military bases on Japanese soil and defending Japan alongside those forces could be interpreted as engaging in collective self-defense.

The bases in Okinawa proved to be of great use to the United States during the Vietnam War. In 1965, the U.S. Air Force began flying B-52s out of Kadena Air Base to bomb North Vietnam.

Japan also enacted a law to allow the Self-Defense Forces to participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations in 1992 without amending or reinterpreting the Constitution.

The law was enacted in response to Japan’s bitter experience in the first Gulf War, from 1990 to 1991, in which it provided $13 billion in financial support to help the allies battle Saddam Hussein but no troops. This earned Tokyo a great deal of international scorn.

The Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines drafted in 1997 also led to Japan enacting a law in 1999 to let it provide logistic support to the United States in emergencies in “areas surrounding Japan,” which was understood to include the Korean Peninsula.

It also passed a law in 2001 allowing it to refuel U.S. vessels in the Indian Ocean for free in support of Operation Enduring Freedom — the war in Afghanistan launched after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — and enacted one allowing the SDF to conduct policing operations against pirates off Somalia in 2009.

“There are many things Japan can do to contribute to the international community without reinterpreting the Constitution,” said Masahiro Sakata, former secretary-general of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, which vets the constitutionality of government-proposed legislation.

The bureau has historically said that Japan cannot exercise the right to collective self-defense.

“There are limits to what Japan can do, but Abe should ask the public if they want to push the limit by putting the issue of constitutional revision on the table rather than just bulldozing the reinterpretation through,” Sakata said.

Yearning to depart from the long-accepted postwar system and to put the alliance with the U.S. on a more equal footing, Abe has long sought the reinterpretation of Article 9.

One move he made during his first stint as prime minister in 2006 was to task a government panel with examining the conditions under which Japan could engage in collective self-defense.

Its report in 2007 envisioned bolstering the alliance by allowing Japan to shoot down missiles targeted at the U.S. and to help protect U.S. naval ships on the high seas in joint operations. It also called for expanding Japan’s role in international missions by letting the SDF use arms to defend foreign troops during peacekeeping operations.

Yet Kyoji Yanagisawa, a former Defense Ministry official who was assistant chief Cabinet secretary in charge of crisis management from 2004 to 2009, noted that Japan can legally shoot down a missile headed for Guam if it travels over Japanese territory because that would be individual self-defense.

One of the biggest changes in assuming an unlimited right to collective self-defense could be the ability to participate in joint military exercises with countries other than the United States. Yanagisawa said exercising the right could ultimately mean entering situations in which Japan is helping to defend friendly countries like the Philippines or Vietnam. But those scenarios appear to have been left out of the discussion.

“It’s easier for the public to understand the necessity of collective self-defense if the government says it’s for the sake of preserving the U.S. alliance,” said Yanagisawa. “Abe wants the legacy of having been the leader who enabled Japan to exercise the right.”

The panel, which was reconvened after Abe returned to power in December 2012, has discussed five specific questions:

1) Can Japan assist the U.S. by conducting ship inspections when the latter comes under attack?

2) Can Japan join U.N.-authorized operations if contingencies break out in areas near Japan?

3) Can the SDF can remove mines near Japanese waters?

4) Can Japan can join U.S.-authorized military actions such as those in the first Gulf War?

5) How should Japan respond to armed incidents when they are not considered full-scale attacks against Japan?

Some people worry Japan could be dragged into American wars, especially after Assistant Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobushige Takamizawa implied last September that Japan could send the SDF to defend friendly nations on the other side of the Earth.

But a high-ranking government official said last week the panel is likely to only say Japan can use the right under limited circumstances where inaction would harm its interests, implying Japan could engage in activities like removing mines from international sea lanes.

“The report won’t include cases in which Japan would participate in a large-scale war under the right to collective self-defense,” said the official, referring to the report the panel is scheduled to produce in April.

“Now we can say that we can’t exercise the right because we have Article 9, which was imposed by the United States,” said Narushige Michishita, director of the security and international studies program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. “But after the government gives the green light, Japan will not be able to make any excuses for not doing enough and more.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.