Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi has his “omiyage” for U.S. President Bill Clinton. Following Monday night’s approval of three bills to implement the updated Japan-U.S. defense guidelines by a special Lower House committee, the full Lower House approved them Tuesday, and Mr. Obuchi will be able to tell the president that he has delivered on his promise to rejuvenate the alliance when they meet in Washington next week. The Upper House will not vote on the legislation until later next month, but passage is virtually assured. The government considers the vote a triumph: a victory for the Liberal Democratic Party and its political allies, and a vote of confidence for the bilateral security alliance.

A more balanced assessment is in order, however, and it is not nearly as glowing as the government would claim. Yes, the legislation has been passed, but once again an opportunity to bring the Japanese public into the defense debate has been squandered. Debate in the Diet was perfunctory, despite the many days spent on it. Critical questions about the scope and effective applicability of the guidelines remain unanswered. More importantly, the critical bargaining was done outside the Diet. Three parties — the LDP, the Liberal Party and New Komeito — resorted once again to the back-room deal-making that has been the hallmark of LDP rule. Compromises were struck, and the resulting legislation seems to be even more vague than it was before.

Earlier this month, we asked two key questions: What are the precise circumstances that would lead Japan to put its armed forces in harm’s way? And must the government seek Diet approval before mobilizing the Self-Defense Forces? We, along with the rest of the country, are still waiting for clear answers. A certain level of ambiguity is understandable: It enhances deterrence and permits military and diplomatic flexibility. Nonetheless, the Constitution puts very definite limits on the ways that Japan may resort to the use of force. Those limits must be respected.

The refusal to state in clear and specific terms when and where Japan may deploy the SDF, and the legal requirements for their use, looks suspiciously like an attempt to erode those limits. Given the government’s history of “reinterpreting” the Constitution when it has felt the need to do so, such skepticism is in order. In a country where the rule of law is supreme and the subordination of the military to civilian rule is absolute, clarity cannot be sacrificed for political expediency. Accountability is the essential feature of democratic government. In its current form, the defense-guidelines legislation leaves open the critical question of who has the final say on mobilization of the SDF. Is it the Cabinet? The Diet? The SDF itself? The United States? This uncertainty is unacceptable.

The irony in this is that we, along with the majority of the Japanese people, support the Japan-U.S. security alliance. The defense guidelines should be updated to reflect the realities of the post-Cold War world. Yet the government’s continuing reluctance to conduct a proper defense debate in the Diet suggests that it has no faith in the common sense of the people.

A real debate would allow the creation of a genuine political consensus. That, in turn, would permit the Japanese government to act with confidence in the event of a real crisis. There would be no doubts about what it was authorized to do. Similarly, the U.S. would know in advance what its partner would — and, more importantly, would not — be able to do. With that knowledge, it could better plan for contingencies.

We fear that the government’s efforts to sidestep such a debate will only erode the national consensus on the merits of the alliance and the use of the SDF. If the defense-guidelines revisions do not enjoy public support, and if Japan discovers itself committed to military action in situations that the public had not anticipated, then the backlash could be severe. Indeed, the secrecy and ambiguity that seem to be integral parts of the defense decision-making process do the nation a disservice.

A public-relations exercise is not needed. Spare us the government officials on the morning news shows and the talking heads explaining the need for modernizing the security alliance. A real parliamentary debate is needed. Only then will the Japanese people feel as though they are participating in the decision-making process. Only then will the guidelines revisions achieve the legitimacy they need to be effective. Only then will Mr. Obuchi be able to tell Mr. Clinton that he has strengthened the Japan-U.S. alliance.

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