National defense bills now before the Diet are drawing a mixed reaction from the public. In a Kyodo News poll earlier this month, nearly 50 percent said Japan needs emergency legislation to deal with military attacks from abroad, but when asked whether the package should be passed in the current Diet session, which ends next month, far more people said no than yes. This indicates that even those who recognize the need for such legislation have doubts about the bills’ content.

Diet debate so far has stopped short of addressing those public concerns. Instead, the debate seems to be getting more complicated, raising more questions than it answers. The biggest question is, in what kinds of situations will the Self-Defense Forces be mobilized?

The package says the SDF will go into action in a “military attack situation.” Generally, this situation refers to the following three cases: (1) Japan has been attacked from abroad; (2) an attack is imminent; or (3) an attack is anticipated.

The first case — an actual invasion by foreign troops — is easy to understand. The SDF will be quickly mobilized to repel the attack. Questions about the second and third cases stem from difficulty in determining when an attack is “imminent” or “anticipated.” Opinion would probably be divided if a given situation were analyzed. That is why the government should explain as best it can the situations it has in mind.

By and large, official answers given so far are vague. It may be that the government is concerned that specific or definitive answers might unnecessarily restrict future SDF activity. Even so, the government should be more forthcoming. It should make greater efforts to enlighten the public. Ambiguous replies will only increase the public’s misgivings about the emergency package.

Utmost caution must be exercised in defense mobilization. History teaches us that such action, if taken rashly, could worsen the situation and defeat its own purpose. It is essential, therefore, to lay out more specific conditions for mobilization so as to preclude any hasty action.

This is of special importance to Japan, where Article 9 of the Constitution has renounced the use of force or war as a means of settling international disputes. Inevitably SDF activity will be limited to the extent that does not exceed the constitutionally mandated right of self-defense.

The government has told the Diet that the SDF will use force only when the country has been attacked, and that it will never do so when an attack is “imminent” or “anticipated.” That is a good explanation. But to win public support for the defense package, the government needs to explain more specifically when the SDF will be mobilized and how its military operations will be kept within the limits of self-defense.

The fundamental question is how to maintain coherence between military emergency legislation and the pacifist Constitution, and between the use of force and the pacifist ideal of “nonuse of force.” Public opinion will remain divided on this point, given the severe constitutional constraints on the use of force.

With the Cold War over, the danger of direct aggression against Japan appears to have all but disappeared. But other cases of national security emergency, such as large-scale acts of terrorism, cannot be ruled out. As Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi correctly put it, “It is an essential duty of government to take appropriate steps even under normal circumstances to prepare for possible emergencies.”

At the same time, however, it cannot be forgotten that emergency legislation is not the only way to secure national security. To live up to the spirit of the Constitution, the nation must also make diplomatic and other nonmilitary efforts to prevent situations that might lead to the use of force.

Mr. Koizumi is on record as favoring a constitutional revision. “Ever since I was elected to the Diet, I have emphasized the need to change our Constitution,” he said in the Diet. “There are many questionable points in the Constitution.”

True, the present Constitution, written more than half a century ago, is not perfect. But the prime minister risks alienating the public further if he creates a perception that he is concerned more about boosting military preparedness than achieving peace without use of force.

The defense bills are designed to facilitate SDF action in a security crisis directly involving this country. But for these measures to be effective, they must be supported by the majority of Japanese. The Diet debate, therefore, should be deepened in ways that will create an essential consensus. The package should be substantially revised if it is necessary to more clearly define and specify mobilization situations.

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