Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent proposal to revise the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 has sparked debate, anxiety and speculation in political circles, thanks in large part to his stubborn refusal to clarify his own thoughts on the matter.

Senior officials in the Liberal Democratic Party have insisted Abe’s revision would not bring about substantive changes in Japan’s security policies, including the defense-only posture.

Abe has so far called only for adding a new paragraph to Article 9 that would legitimize the existence of the Self-Defense Forces while keeping the war-renouncing portion unaltered, LDP officials said.

But opposition lawmakers have argued that, depending on the wording, the revision could drastically expand the legal scope of SDF operations, including those conducted overseas.

In Diet sessions, Abe has repeatedly refused to discuss any details of his proposal, including the specific wording that would be added to Article 9.

Abe has insisted that he is obliged to comply with the Constitution, and that his recent proposal was a message mainly intended to promote discussions at the party level.

“The prime minister hasn’t explained at all what he would do with the (constitutional) pledge to renounce war and not to own any war potential. Yet he wants a paragraph to clearly mention the SDF,” Tetsuro Fukuyama, deputy secretary-general of the Democratic Party, the largest opposition force, said during an NHK debate program Sunday.

“LDP members have their own separate opinions, so do Cabinet members. … It’s very difficult to understand” the situation, Fukuyama said.

Abe said in an interview with the daily Yomiuri Shimbun on May 3 that he wants to add a paragraph to Article 9 to legitimize the SDF but keep the first and second paragraphs unchanged.

The first paragraph states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

The second paragraph says: “In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the government interpreted Article 9 literally and maintained that it banned Japan from owning any military force, even for self-defense.

At the time, the U.S.-led Occupation was still in place and most Japanese, remembering the vast damage suffered by Japan in World War II, were content to go along with the pacifist ideal.

Since then, the government has changed its interpretation and now argues that the Constitution does not ban Japan from exercising the right to defend itself with the “minimum necessary” use of force, if it runs out of alternatives, such as diplomacy.

Self-defense is an inherent right of any independent nation, and the SDF’s existence is thus constitutional despite Article 9, the government says.

The government’s definition of the right to self-defense is much narrower than what is generally accepted under international law.

For example, the Constitution is interpreted as strictly prohibiting the SDF from using any weapon unless an enemy country attacks it first, a policy known as senshuboei, or exclusively defensive posture.

Meanwhile, Article 51 of the U.N. Charter allows a member country to participate in collective self-defense — the right to use force to defend an ally even when the country itself is not under attack.

For decades, the government interpreted Article 9 as banning Japan from engaging in collective self-defense at all, saying it would go beyond the bounds of “the minimum necessary” use of force to defend Japan.

In a highly controversial move in 2014, the Abe administration engineered a change in this interpretation. However, even under Abe’s interpretation, Japan is allowed to exercise the right to collective self-defense only if the nation’s “survival” is at stake.

During Sunday’s NHK program, Hakubun Shimomura, an LDP deputy secretary-general and a close ally of the prime minister, said Abe’s proposal would only give the SDF a legitimate position in the Constitution and “would not stretch the interpretation” of Article 9.

However, Fukuyama pointed out that the LDP’s 2012 draft for constitutional revision called for deleting the second paragraph of Article 9. If that were to occur, he argued that the full-fledged use of collective self-defense would become acceptable.

Akira Koike, head of the Japanese Communist Party’s secretariat, also pointed out that legitimizing the SDF as Abe desires would end up doing the same thing.

“If the existence of the SDF is written into Article 9, it would render the second paragraph ineffective,” Koike said.

If the SDF missions are defined in Article 9, its interpretation would eventually be extended to allow Japan to use force overseas without restraint, he said.

Shimomura shrugged off Koike’s concerns as speculation, saying that opposition lawmakers were “overreacting” to Abe’s proposal and claiming that “the current legal position of the SDF” would be retained if the proposal succeeded.

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