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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says the Dec. 14 general elections is meant to seek voters’ verdict on his economic policies, including his decision to postpone by 18 months the second round of the consumption tax hike following the increase to 8 percent in April. The major issue in the campaign, he insists, is whether he should carry on with his “Abenomics” policy of fighting deflation through monetary stimulus, aggressive fiscal spending and structural reforms of the economy.

Abe’s emphasis on economic issues, however, should not overshadow the steps that his administration has taken in the areas closely related to the nation’s principles under the postwar Constitution, such as his Cabinet’s decision to enable Japan to engage in collective self-defense — a major departure from the nation’s strictly self-restrictive defense posture — as well as the enactment of the state secrets law, which paves the way for classification of a wide range of government information and could restrict the people’s right to know, which is an indispensable part of democracy. Voters need to seriously consider the implications of these policies.

Past administrations upheld the position that under the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan cannot exercise the right to collective self-defense or the right to defend its allies under attack when the nation is not being attacked. While engaging in a security alliance with the United States, Japan pursued a policy solely based on “individual self-defense,” in which it pledged to use minimum necessary force only when Japan is attacked or when it faces an imminent attack.

Rather than seeking a constitutional amendment, Abe reinterpreted the Constitution in a Cabinet decision on July 1 to enable Japan to carry out military missions under collective self-defense. The decision was made following a recommendation by a private advisory body to the prime minister — whose members had been hand-picked by Abe himself — that called for reinterpreting Article 9, and subsequent closed-door talks between his Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito. The prime minister effectively bypassed Diet scrutiny in making the decision — although amendments to specific laws required to legally implement the constitutional reinterpretation would still need to be approved by the Diet.

The prime minister justified his move to reinterpret the Constitution by citing the rapidly changing security environment surrounding Japan — presumably including China’s growing maritime assertiveness in Asia and North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs — and saying that Japan acting alone cannot secure its own national security. He insists that Japan would engage in collective self-defense only when security of the nation itself is under threat — although the scope is so vaguely defined that worries persist that overseas missions of the Self-Defense Forces could expand without limits. Abe also says that such steps are necessary to solidify the security alliance with the U.S. But concern also exist that the decision would make it possible for Japan to be drawn into U.S.-led military conflicts overseas.

Touting “proactive pacifism” as the slogan of his policy to engage Japan more actively in international security matters, Abe has also instituted another policy change when he ditched the government’s longstanding ban on weapons exports. The ban introduced in 1967 by the administration of Prime Minister Eisaku Sato helped to prevent the use of Japanese arms in international conflicts, allowing Japan to gain greater trust in the international community. The new policy essentially authorizes weapons exports by Japan except under certain conditions, such as when doing so could hinder the preservation of international peace and security. But these exceptions do not serve as a guarantee against the possibility of Japanese weapons and technologies ending up being used in overseas conflicts.

The enactment of the state secrets law, which had not been mentioned either in the LDP’s campaign promise for the 2012 Lower House election or its platform for the 2013 Upper House poll, was another defining moment by the Abe administration, which argued that Japan needs tighter control of its security information as it pursues closer defense cooperation with its allies. The ruling coalition used its dominant grip on the Diet to ram it through last year despite strong resistance from the opposition and a public outcry over its impact on the people’s right to know.

The law, which is set to go into effect on Dec. 10 just as the campaign for the general election is in full swing, allows the government to classify a wide range of information in areas of defense, diplomacy, counterintelligence and anti-terrorism as state secrets, and impose heavy punishments on both public officials who leak the information and those who seek to obtain the secrets through conspiracy, inducement or agitation. Criticism abounds over the lack of an independent oversight body to serve as a check against discretionary classification of state secrets by government officials over an extended period, and inadequate protection of whistle-blowers.

Along with the bread and butter issues of the economy, voters are urged to take a serious look at the Abe administration’s actions in the areas of defense and freedom of information over the past two years and their implications for the nation’s future. Rather than shy away from these two controversial issues in the campaign, Abe should seek the voters’ verdict on them as well.

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