Commentary / Japan

Abe's right — it's time to codify the SDF

by Ted Gover

Contributing Writer

Amid plunging public support for his Cabinet due to the fallout from the Moritomo Gakuen scandal that implicates the Finance Ministry and his wife in a suspicious real estate deal and accusations of a cover-up, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is charging ahead to change Article 9 of the Constitution, which states that Japan renounces war as a sovereign right.

And he is right to do so.

Abe’s long-held desire to amend Japan’s postwar pacifist Constitution is well known. He renewed his promise to revise the charter to legalize unequivocally the Self-Defense Forces in a speech at the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s annual convention last Sunday.

For years, many constitutional scholars have argued that the SDF is unconstitutional, asserting that it violates the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution. To address this, Abe wants to insert into the Constitution a reference to the SDF to clarify its legal status in the supreme law while also keeping in place the first two clauses of Article 9 that renounce the right to wage war and bans the maintenance of a standing military.

During his March 25 speech, Abe spoke of the “responsibility” that the ruling party has to put an end to controversy over the SDF’s constitutionality. Abe argues that while his proposed constitutional revision will make the SDF legal in the Constitution itself, it will not alter in any way Japan’s national security policies.

Yet, the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling coalition may itself throw roadblocks in front of Abe’s plans. While the ruling coalition has the two-thirds majority in both the Lower and Upper Houses of the Diet necessary for proposing a constitutional change for public referendum, Abe’s LDP is reliant on Komeito for its two-thirds majority in the Lower House and it is forced to rely on Komeito as well as minority opposition parties for its two-thirds majority in the Upper House.

Komeito, principally supported by the pacifist lay Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, is known to be wary of Abe’s plans for changing Article 9.

The public is also reluctant to jump on board with Abe’s plans for constitutional change. A nationwide telephone poll conducted on Jan. 13-14 showed that 54.8 percent of respondents are against revising the Constitution, with only 33 percent supporting revision. Opinion polling specifically focused on Article 9 — rather than constitutional revision more broadly — has shown an even larger percentage of respondents expressing disapproval.

More recently, a March 4 Kyodo News poll showed 48.5 percent of respondents opposing changes to constitutional amendments, including changes to Article 9, under Abe’s leadership, with 39.2 percent supporting the change. While these results show a slight uptick in support of Abe’s revision plans, the March 4 poll was conducted before the latest chapter in the Moritomo Gakuen scandal that contributed to public support for his Cabinet sinking to 31 percent according to March 17-18 public opinion polling.

These recent polls indicate that obtaining public approval via the nationwide referendum required for constitutional changes will be difficult. Article 9 is a symbol of Japan’s postwar identity as a peaceful country in the global community, and changing it is anathema to the many Japanese who understandably view the destruction and loss that World War II brought as a national tragedy.

This reflects a widely held view among Japanese citizens that the country’s pacifism helped restore its reputation worldwide after 1945, allowing for the peaceful conditions that helped Japan create a top-tier economy and society.

It bears mentioning that some distrust Abe’s intentions, often citing his affiliation with right-wing organizations like Nippon Kaigi that advocate wider constitutional revision. These people believe that Abe’s current efforts to revise the constitution mask a plan for more radical reform that will put Japan on a path for future war.

There are also segments of the Japanese public who doubt the utility of amending Article 9, unconvinced that changing the SDF’s legal status will allow it to better respond to regional security threats or to change the way it operates on the ground.

Another complicating factor are the worries of Japan’s neighbors who are resentful of Imperial Japan’s conduct from 1895 to 1945.

Despite these objections to and concerns about Abe’s intentions to formalize the SDF’s legal status, neither Japan’s citizens nor its neighbors need be alarmed. His proposed amendment to Article 9 is a responsible, well timed plan that will help keep Japan, its partners and the world safer.

Some critics argue that Abe’s proposal to revise Article 9 to make the legality of Japan’s military unequivocal while still keeping the war-renouncing clause is merely symbolic. Yet, this change would serve an important purpose as it would help remove uncertainty in a gray area of Japanese law where there has been dispute among constitutional scholars on the SDF’s legality. Abe’s proposed amendment will confirm that Japan may legally engage in individual self-defense and it will complement the September 2015 security legislation that allowed the SDF to engage in limited forms of collective self-defense.

In Japan’s deeply rules-bound society, the importance of providing legal clarity to decision-makers — especially during times of crisis — cannot be overstated.

Without this legal clarification, one would be forgiven for wondering if a future U.S. national security adviser would receive a call from his Japanese counterpart during a time of crisis, informing him that Tokyo would not be able to assist Washington to address the contingency at hand due to a lack of consensus about the SDF’s legality.

The concern of both Japanese citizens and regional states about changes to Article 9 increasing Tokyo’s chances of returning to a war footing or becoming entangled in future U.S.-led wars, while mistaken, is understandable. It is undeniable that pain and tensions remain over issues of memory and history relating to Imperial Japan’s behavior.

Yet, it far past time to acknowledge that Japan is a different country today with a new generation of leaders. For the past 70 years, Japan has renounced aggression and has been at peace with its neighbors. It is a democracy with a proven commitment to the rule of law, a free press, an independent judiciary and equality.

Beyond this, Japan has been an important contributor to the postwar order, lending its geopolitical support to the causes of freedom and human rights at international venues like the United Nations while consistently ranking among the world’s top foreign aid donors.

It bears saying that Tokyo has been a rock solid ally of Washington, partnering with the U.S. to keep the peace in the Asia-Pacific region. This association has not been without consequences for Japan. To some degree, it is Tokyo’s long-standing alliance with Washington that irks Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang and even al-Qaida, contributing to their hostility toward Japan.

Lastly, in recent decades the SDF has developed an honorable track record worthy of the global community’s trust. Since the early 1990s, the world has seen a number of non-combatant SDF overseas missions that have helped provide peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in accordance with international law. In each of these missions, Japan’s leadership and the SDF demonstrated a discipline in keeping within the boundaries of their agreed responsibilities and avoiding mission creep.

Clearly, the SDF and its civilian leadership are not a rogue outfit that poses a risk to other states. Its contribution to world peace and humanitarian aid needs to be highlighted by Abe to help address concerns over revising Article 9.

The changing dynamics of the Asia Pacific bring new challenges to the security balance of the region and call for proactive, responsible measures by Tokyo and friendly states. Abe’s drive to amend Article 9 of the Constitution is a prudent and measured step in helping to secure Japan and enable it to function like any other sovereign nation.

Japan has been a conscientious democracy and member of the global community, and the past seven decades have shown that a healthy, prosperous and stable Japan is good for the world. Neither its citizens nor its neighbors should fear Abe’s proposed constitutional change — rather, it should be embraced and encouraged.

Ted Gover is associate director of the Tribal Administration Certificate Program at Claremont Graduate University.