Japan reinterprets constitution, can defend allies in combat

An U.S. Air Force pararescueman explains some of the equipment used during missions to visiting members of the Japan Self Defense Forces' Deployment Air Force for Counter-Piracy Enforcement at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, Dec. 3, 2013.


By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 1, 2014

TOKYO — Japan’s ruling coalition adopted a resolution Tuesday that — for the first time in the post-World War II era — will allow the nation’s armed forces to defend the country’s allies in combat.

The cabinet resolution calling for a reinterpretation of the nation’s pacifist constitution sparked protests in Tokyo and remains unpopular according to some opinion polls.

However, it faces only fragmented opposition from Japan’s minority political parties.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party will use the cabinet resolution to amend laws within the national legislature, thereby allowing Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to come to an ally’s defense if there is no other way to “ensure the nation’s survival and to protect its people,” according to the cabinet resolution. 

“The change in policy is to take every possible measure, to deter any attempt to attack our nation,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in a televised news conference Tuesday night. “There is absolutely no chance that Japan becomes a nation that wages war.”

Abe cited the “increasingly severe” security environment in the region as the reason for the changes. In recent years, Japan and China have scrambled jet fighters and been involved in tense maritime incidents near the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China. North Korea’s continued missile tests and nuclear weapons program are also a cause of concern.

In May, a government legal panel tasked with studying the constitutional reinterpretation argued that the U.S.-Japan security alliance was vital to Japan’s survival and might not endure without collective self-defense — a theme Abe picked up when questioned by reporters Tuesday.

“If a U.S. vessel that is protecting Japan is attacked, and if Japan does nothing, will Japan expect trust from people in the United States?” Abe asked. 

Abe had pushed for approval of the cabinet resolution by June 22 but ran into delays from New Komeito, the junior party in his majority governing coalition. New Komeito – a largely Buddhist party that runs on a peace platform - negotiated compromises on the resolution’s wording rather than leave the government.

Japan may engage in collective defense if another country “with which Japan has close ties” threatens the country’s existence and causes “clear danger” to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, according the resolution.

According to an earlier version of the resolution, collective self-defense would be justified if an attack on another country, close ally or not, caused “fear” that Japan’s security would be undermined.

The resolution also calls for Japan to use only the minimum amount of force necessary to defend its interest.

Although some polls have shown support for aiding the U.S. or rescuing Japanese hostages — two of many scenarios posed by the government — most polls indicate that a majority oppose the collective self defense resolution.  A Nikkei newspaper poll conducted over the past weekend found 34 percent support for Abe’s plan, while 50 percent opposed it.  Only 29 percent supported Abe’s method of reinterpreting the constitution, rather than introducing a constitutional amendment.

Thousands of demonstrators gathered outside Abe’s office in recent days to protest the resolution. On Sunday, a protester lit himself on fire after speaking out against the constitutional reinterpretation near the south exit of JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, the world’s busiest train station. Firefighters on scene put out the fire and took him to the hospital, where he was reported to be alive as of Monday.

Opponents of collective self-defense say there is no way to allow it under a constitution that explicitly renounces “the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

“If with each successive administration, the interpretation of the constitution … changes, then that means we eventually begin to lose stability in terms of laws, said Seiichiro Murakami, one of the few LDP lawmakers to break from his party’s ranks. “Fundamentally, this country will no longer be one that is governed by the rule of law.”

Opponents have little practical recourse at the moment. Abe remains popular for his economic policies. The LDP holds a solid Diet majority, and national elections aren’t required until December 2016.

At least 10 laws related to collective self-defense will require revision by the national Diet. Although Japan’s Supreme Court could strike them down, that is unlikely if history offers any guidance.

“The judicial enforcement of constitutional limits on government power exists more in theory than in practice,” wrote David Law, professor of law and political science at Washington University in St. Louis, in a research study that described judicial review in Japan as a failed practice.

Over six decades, the Japan Supreme Court struck down only eight laws on constitutional grounds, making it one of the world’s most reluctant high courts among democratic systems. By comparison, the U.S. struck down more than 600 laws during the same period.

Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.


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