Editorials

Upper House has its work cut out

The Upper House is set to start its deliberations next week on the government’s security legislation, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition pushed through the Lower House in mid-July despite all the unanswered questions and doubts raised in the Diet deliberations. Those questions must be fully addressed in the upper chamber — even though the ruling camp may now have effectively secured the enactment of the legislation.

Neither the ruling parties or the opposition camp should dare consider letting the bills sit idle without a vote in the Upper House. If 60 days pass without a vote, the legislation is automatically deemed rejected by the chamber, an outcome that the Lower House can override in a re-vote with the two-thirds majority of the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito alliance before the current Diet session closes on Sept. 27. Such a scenario, if it happened, would raise doubts about the very necessity of the upper chamber.

Media opinion polls taken before and after the Lower House vote almost unanimously show that the legislation is opposed by a majority of the public, with about 80 percent of pollees saying that the government has not given sufficient explanations about the bills. In a series of polls taken by Kyodo News, public opposition to the bills increased as the Diet deliberations progressed — a clear indication that doubts about the legislation deepened the more it was discussed. Abe should seriously take the sharp plunge in the approval ratings of his Cabinet — which in some polls were surpassed by disapproval ratings for the first time since he returned to the helm of government in 2012 — as a clear message from the public that it’s not convinced of the need to enact the legislation.

Abe apparently took a cue from the falling public support of his Cabinet when he, in a surprise turnaround in the government’s position, announced that the controversial plan to build a new National Stadium — the main venue of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo — at a whopping cost of ¥250 billion would be “reviewed from scratch,” promising that he would “lend an ear to the public opinion” that was severely critical of the cost overrun. Abe said the 2020 games “must be held with the blessing of the people.” How then can he think that the security legislation — which marks a major change in the nation’s defense posture — could be rammed through the Diet without the public’s understanding and support?

Members of the Abe administration and the ruling bloc say the security legislation has been sufficiently deliberated in the Lower House because the total amount of time spent on it had topped 110 hours by the time it was put to a vote. But the legislation consists of two bills — one to amend a total of 10 existing laws, including the Self-Defense Force Law, the law on response to an armed attack on Japan, as well as the 1999 law that stipulated the SDF’s logistical support to the U.S. military in emergencies in areas surrounding Japan. The other is a new blanket law that paves the way for the overseas dispatch of the SDF to provide logistical support for other forces engaged in international military operations — a situation for which Japan in the past enacted temporary laws each time the need for such a mission arose.

These bills are meant to enable Japan to engage in acts of collective self-defense — which the government had long deemed prohibited under the war-renouncing Constitution — and significantly expand the scope of the SDF’s overseas missions, including joint operations with the U.S. forces. They cover a broad range of the nation’s defense policy, and much of the key details of the legislation were hardly explored during the Lower House deliberations.

One of the issues that took the center stage in the Lower House debate concerned the very legal foundation of the legislation. Constitutional scholars and former chiefs of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau termed the legislation unconstitutional, on the grounds that the bills cannot be explained within the basic logic of the government’s past position on Japan’s security policy under the war-renouncing Article 9. Abe brushed aside such views, either saying that he’s confident of the constitutionality of the bills or insisting that it’s the duty of politicians to reinterpret the Constitution to think what the nation should do to defend itself under changing international security environment. The constitutionality of the bills remains an open question that was not resolved even as they cleared the Lower House.

The government and the ruling coalition insist on the legitimacy of their decision to reinterpret the Constitution to pave the way for Japan’s military action in collective self-defense on the grounds that the nation will engage in minimum necessary acts of collective self-defense only when its own survival is threatened by an attack on its ally — and that therefore it is consistent with the government’s past position that the Constitution does not deny the nation the right to resort to minimum use of force to defend itself. However, conditions spelled out in the legislation that trigger such actions by Japan are left ambiguous, leaving broad room for discretion by the administration in power as to what particular situation would prompt the nation to use force.

Whereas SDF units in previous missions such as in the post-conflict reconstruction in the Iraq War were deployed to what was defined as “noncombat zones” or “rear areas,” the blanket bill for SDF’s logistical support of other nations’ forces in international military operations can dispatch Japanese troops much closer to the battlefield. The government has not convincingly answered charges from the opposition camp and experts that the SDF’s logistical support of the other militaries engaged in combat, including the supply of ammunition, effectively makes them a part of the use of force. These and other substantial questions about the legislation must be more fully scrutinized and debated in the upcoming deliberations. Upper House members should remember that they are not fulfilling their duties if they merely let the clock run out on the security bills without getting answers to the questions and doubts that have been raised about them.