The government’s security legislation — which would lift Japan’s long-standing ban on acts of collective self-defense and significantly expand the scope of Self-Defense Forces’ overseas missions — remains unpopular among the public, as shown in various opinion polls, even as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition prepares to push it through the Upper House this week. Abe himself admits that popular support for the legislation has not grown even after four months of Diet deliberations.
But why? Abe earlier lamented that labeling of the bills by part of the opposition camp as “war legislation” gave the wrong impression to the public. He said the legislation is instead aimed at beefing up Japan’s security deterrence and preventing the nation from being drawn into war.
The legislation’s shaky legal grounds also became a focus of the Diet deliberations, but doubts cast by constitutional scholars and even former chiefs of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau about the legislation’s constitutionality were in effect dismissed by administration officials, who repeatedly said they are convinced that the bills are constitutional. Some even suggested that they don’t care about scholarly opinions, with the most candid remark coming from a close aide of the prime minister who said that legal stability does not matter when the government weighs a security policy to defend the nation. Abe said lawmakers would not be fulfilling their duty by sticking to the conventional interpretation of the Constitution in the face of changing international security circumstances, but concern remains that his act of changing the government’s interpretation of the Constitution with a Cabinet decision shakes the foundation of the nation’s legal stability.
What’s apparently leaving the public puzzled the most over the legislation, however, is that it fails to set clear parameters on the scope of Japan’s newly expanded security roles, making it hard for people to visualize what the nation will actually be doing once the legislation is enacted.
The legislation consists of two bills. But the “legislation for peace and security” amends 10 existing laws, including the SDF Law, the 1999 law on Japan’s logistical support for the U.S. forces in contingencies in areas surrounding Japan, as well as one defining Japan’s response to armed attacks. Another “international peace support law” is a new blanket bill that paves the way for dispatch of SDF troops abroad to provide logistical support of other forces engaged in missions to “eliminate threats to peace and security of the international community.” The bills encompass far-reaching and broad changes to Japan’s security posture. But while the government and the ruling coalition say that the bills have been sufficiently deliberated — with the total time topping 200 hours in the two Diet chambers combined — many of the legislation’s details have barely been probed.
The legislation’s biggest feature is its implementation of the Cabinet’s decision last year to change the government’s long-standing interpretation of the Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense, which was banned by past administrations on the grounds that it runs counter to the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9. The Abe administration says the decision is not inconsistent with past governments’ positions that the Constitution does not deny the nation the right to use force to defend itself, because it paves the way for Japan to engage in collective self-defense action in minimum, limited ways only when an attack on a country in a close relationship with Japan “threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn the people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” and “when there is no other appropriate means available to repel the attack.”
But the “conditions” for triggering an act of collective self-defense are not further specified, leaving it up to the discretion of the administration in power to determine what particular situation constitutes a “threat to Japan’s survival” and whether there is no other means to eliminate the threat. Abe’s repeated reference to a minesweeping mission in the Strait of Hormuz as an example of Japan’s possible collective self-defense mission — on the grounds that disruption in the crude oil supply from the Mideast would cause severe economic damage that could threaten Japan’s survival — makes it hard to grasp what are in fact the parameters that define the scope of such missions by Japan and leads one to wonder whether the government wants to keep the scope as broad as possible in the event of future contingencies — contrary to its insistence that collective self-defense missions would be strictly limited.
During the Upper House debate, the prime minister named China’s growing military presence in the region as one of the changing security circumstances in the region that justifies reinterpretation of the Constitution to beef up Japan’s security regime. But he failed to explain in concrete terms how China’s threat requires Japan’s response in collective self-defense, not individual self-defense. Abe also again stated that today’s international security circumstances make it difficult for any country to defend itself alone — an apparent reference to the need for closer and deeper security cooperation with the United States.
The amendment to the 1999 law on support for U.S. forces, based on new guidelines for bilateral defense cooperation updated in Washington in late April even before the security legislation was submitted to the Diet, greatly expands the scope of the SDF’s joint operations with the U.S. military. Whereas the 1999 law effectively limited the SDF’s logistical support to areas around Japan — with contingencies on the Korean Peninsula in mind, the amendment lifts the geographical restrictions and in theory paves the way for defense cooperation anywhere around the world to respond to situations “that gravely affect” Japan’s peace and security, such as ones that, if left unattended, could lead to direct attacks on the nation. The parameters in the law go no further than that and, again, the judgment of whether a particular situation meets the conditions will likely belong to the government in power.
The new blanket law on overseas SDF deployments for support of international military operations — for which special temporary laws were enacted in the past for each mission — also changes the nature of the SDF missions since it could take Japanese troops much closer to the battlefield. Whereas previous such missions were restricted to what were defined as “noncombat” zones or “rear areas” to clearly separate them from combat missions, the new law would allow deployment to anywhere other than the scene of an actual battle to provide logistical support, including supply of ammunition and refueling, for friendly forces on combat missions. There has been no convincing explanation as to why the SDF units providing such logistical support would not be considered by enemy forces as inseparable from the use of force by their opponents and thereby be a potential target. It remains to be seen if it will be practical — as the government asserts — for the SDF commander of such a mission to make an independent decision to withdraw in the event fighting takes place or resumes, to secure the safety of Japanese troops.
Abe reiterates that once the legislation has been sufficiently discussed, a decision should be made in accordance with the rules of democracy (in other words, enacting it on the majority strength of the ruling coalition). But it seems that many of the questions and doubts about the legislation that remained from the Lower House deliberations were also never answered in the Upper House.
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