National / Politics

Concerns grow in ruling coalition as debate over Article 9 begins

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Members of both the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito have voiced concerns about reinterpreting Article 9 of the Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense under certain conditions, ahead of talks Tuesday in the ruling coalition over the contentious issue.

One day before the start of coalition discussions, Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba said the LDP will ask the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to show specific scenarios that the coalition should work on at the first meeting.

“We want the government to show the obvious cases that the current law cannot cover. We will start discussion, first with the gray-zone scenarios, cases under which the Self Defense Forces can resort to use of weapons, and cases of collective self-defense,” Ishiba said after an LDP meeting on Monday over the issue.

Yet some members of the LDP voiced concerns about the prospect of allowing Japan to exercise the right, in the wake of a government panel report last week that recommended the Abe administration reinterpret Article 9.

Hajime Funada, who heads the LDP’s commission for constitutional revision, said it would take time for Japan to revise the Constitution but that Abe should be prepared to dissolve the Lower House if he decides to continue down that route.

“We cannot hold a national referendum on this issue yet, but Abe should consider a snap election as an option to reflect the public’s will on this matter,” Funada said.

The LDP’s junior coalition partner, New Komeito, is even more wary of embracing the right to collective self-defense, especially after its power base, lay Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, voiced opposition to the move.

Soka Gakkai released a statement on Saturday saying the government should opt for a constitutional revision —which would require a referendum — to allow for the right to collective self-defense even under limited scenarios.

It is unusual for Soka Gakkai to issue a statement regarding specific government policies, suggesting that New Komeito’s decision on the issue could be influenced by the religious group.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga played down that prospect on Monday, saying that Soka Gakkai’s position on the matter would not have any impact on the coalition talks. Meanwhile on Sunday, Ishiba said New Komeito’s decision should not be influenced by the religious group.

New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi declined to directly comment on the issue on Monday, but said there are scenarios the government can handle without changing the current interpretation of Article 9.

“Tackling those scenarios in the context of collective self-defense could ultimately expand the use of the right,” Yamaguchi said.

“The report said that Japan should be allowed to exercise the right under a situation that could harm Japan’s security, but it is very vague on how it should limit the cases,” he added, referring to recommendations made last week by the government panel.

The coalition talks come after Abe ordered the ruling bloc on Thursday to consider whether Japan should reinterpret Article 9 to more effectively respond to growing tensions in the region.

Abe has said Japan should be able to defend U.S. vessels that are transporting Japanese nationals fleeing a foreign conflict, possibly by exercising the right to collective self-defense. Yet the two parties remain widely divided on that point.

The coalition will therefore start by less contentious matters: the so-called gray-zone scenarios suggested by Abe, which do not involve a full-scale military attack by sovereign nations.

One example would be disguised armed fishermen presumably under the control of the Chinese military launching a surprise landing on the disputed Senkaku Islands. The islets in the East China Sea are administered by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan.

Currently, the Self Defense Forces can only respond to such incidents with its police authority, and cannot resort to a counterattack unless an incident is considered a full-scale military attack and the SDF is given authorization by the prime minister and the Diet.The two parties will also mull how other scenarios suggested by Abe, including whether the SDF should be able to protect Japanese or foreigners engaged in volunteer activities or peacekeeping operations in foreign countries.

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