Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasizes that his proposal for amending Article 9 of the Constitution is aimed at dispelling any room for doubts about the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces under the postwar Constitution. That is a question that successive governments have answered by taking the position that the war-renouncing Article 9 does not deny the nation the right to defend itself against enemy attacks. Merely clarifying the legal status of the SDF may seem to make little practical change to Japan’s defense posture. Abe says the constitutional restrictions on the SDF’s missions will “basically not change” under his proposed amendment.

That should not be taken for granted, however, until we know how the SDF’s status and roles will be defined in the amendment. Concern has been voiced that even if the original text of Article 9 is kept intact, as Abe suggested, adding a new clause legitimizing the SDF could effectively invalidate the disavowal of Japan maintaining “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potentials” — a provision that served as the basis to restrict the mission of the SDF as a “minimum necessary force for self-defense” that does not constitute a “war potential” — thereby lifting such restrictions. We need to watch out for a more detailed proposal to come before judging on its implications.

Since the prime minister set a time frame in his push for constitutional amendment — expressing his hopes that a revised Constitution will be implemented in 2020 — and singled out Article 9 as the target for change, Abe has urged his Liberal Democratic Party to draw up a draft amendment by the end of the year. Reports suggest that the LDP would seek to initiate an amendment as early as in the regular Diet session next year. Abe, who apparently views amending the Constitution as a key component of his once-avowed “departure from Japan’s postwar regime,” has clearly shifted his amendment campaign into overdrive.

The Article 9 states “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 “in order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” In his video message to a May 3 gathering of pro-amendment groups, Abe suggested that a new clause be added to Article 9 to clarify the legal status of the SDF, while keeping its original text as it is, to put an end to the question over constitutionality of the SDF.

The prime minister may be counting on public support for such an amendment of Article 9, given the changing security environment surrounding Japan as illustrated by North Korea’s repeated nuclear weapons tests and ballistic missile launches. Indeed, a Kyodo News poll taken after Abe’s remarks showed 56 percent of respondents were in favor of clarifying the SDF’s status in Article 9, as opposed to 34 percent who said no such revision is needed. The proposal may also sound acceptable for Komeito, the LDP’s junior ally in the ruling coalition, whose cooperation will be crucial if Abe is going to seek initiating an amendment on the strength of the ruling coalition and its allies.

But merely adding a clause legitimizing the SDF will obviously not resolve the questions over its status and roles. The LDP’s draft amendment released in 2012 eliminates the latter part of Article 9 — disavowal of the possession of war potentials — and stipulates that renunciation of war and use of force as means of settling international disputes does not stop Japan from exercising its right of self defense and that the nation possesses the “national defense force.” The party appears to recognize that the SDF and disavowal of any “war potential” are not legally compatible.

In a 2014 decision by his Cabinet that set the stage for the security legislation enacted the following year, Abe changed the government’s long-standing interpretation of the Constitution to lift the ban on Japan exercising the right to collective self-defense. The security legislation, which significantly expanded the scope of the SDF’s missions overseas, allows Japan to come to the defense of an ally under attack even when Japan itself is not being attacked — but only when Japan’s own survival is being threatened by the enemy attack on its ally. Abe then said that any further expansion in the SDF’s mission would need to wait for an amendment to the Constitution.

If indeed the Abe administration is to seek the amendment of Article 9, that effort needs to be accompanied by thorough discussions on what should be the SDF’s mission and roles — on the basis of which the people’s judgment on an amendment should be sought. Simply clarifying the legal status of the SDF will not settle these questions.

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