Concerning a possible change in the government’s long-standing constitutional interpretation that the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution prohibits Japan from exercising the right to collective self-defense, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared at a Feb. 12 session of the Lower House Budget Committee that he is the “highest responsible person” as far as the government’s constitutional interpretation is concerned. This is a highly problematic statement for a prime minister to make.

Abe ignores the fact that successive governments have upheld the current interpretation that bans the exercise of the right to collective self-defense on the basis of studies done by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau over several decades. He also forgets the fact that those governments confirmed the interpretation in question-and-answer sessions in the Diet.

Abe must realize that an established constitutional interpretation inherited by successive governments is not something a prime minister can freely change.

Given Article 9, which says 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” and that “The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized,” the current interpretation banning the exercise of the right to collective self-defense is logical. Yet Abe is trying to scrap this long-established interpretation by using discussions by a 14-member private advisory body as a theoretical justification.

In the Diet session, Abe basically stated that if he presents a proposal to change the constitutional interpretation to the electorate and wins an election, he can then put the change into effect without following the amendment procedure outlined in Article 96 of the Constitution, which requires a concurring vote of two-thirds or more of all the members of each house and subsequent approval by a voter majority in a special referendum.

Criticizing Abe for making the statement, Seiichiro Murakami, a Liberal Democratic Party Lower House member, said in an LDP General Council session that Abe’s statement can be interpreted to mean that a leader who wins an election can stretch and bend an established constitutional interpretation. He pointed out that it would be problematic if it becomes possible for an administration to change a constitutional interpretation as it wishes.

Abe’s thinking undermines the rule of law and the principle of constitutional government in which the constitution serves as a means of limiting the power of government, especially on matters related to people’s rights and freedoms. If an administration can freely change a constitutional interpretation, the Constitution no longer functions as the state’s highest law.

Abe does not understand that the Constitution ranks above ordinary laws. His thinking also runs counter to the principle of separation of administrative, legislative and judiciary branches. More politicians should follow Murakami’s example and point out the folly of Abe’s thinking.

Asked in a Feb. 3 session of the Lower House Budget Committee what he thinks about the function of a constitution, Abe said the idea that a constitution’s role is to bind the power of government “belongs to those periods when monarchs held absolute power.”

One wonders what Abe’s answer would be to this question: If a constitution does not bind the power of government, what protects the rights and freedoms of the people? His statement shows that he does not understand the inherent danger that resides in political power and the principles upon which democracy stand.

The public should realize that a prime minister with a shallow and dangerous understanding of constitutional government is leading Japan. LDP members who have been silent about Abe’s politics should now speak up. Other political parties, including the LDP’s partner New Komeito, must act to prevent Abe from deviating from the correct path of constitutional government.

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