Shinzo Abe’s Constitutional Ambitions

Recent Features

Features | Politics | East Asia

Shinzo Abe’s Constitutional Ambitions

Despite widespread opposition, Japan’s PM is determined to reinterpret the constitution.

Shinzo Abe’s Constitutional Ambitions
Credit: REUTERS/Frank Robichon/Pool

Japan’s ruling coalition is currently embroiled in a debate over the future of security. Preaching a new strategy of “active pacifism,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been pressing to reinterpret the constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense. This would legitimate a more proactive role for the Japan Self-Defense Forces, and would allow Japan to launch counterstrikes if allies were under attack.

A new constitutional interpretation is an eminently sensible move, or so Abe and other supporters of “active pacifism” believe. After all, the current interpretation of Article 9 – the peace clause of Japan’s constitution – allows only the bare minimum use of force to defend the nation from direct attack. It does not permit the exercise of collective self-defense, or even the use of force to defend an ally that is under attack. This means that Japan is legally unable to shoot down a missile targeting the United States, and cannot come to the aid of an allied ship that is under attack.

This could have very real consequences for the U.S.-Japan alliance. Washington has for decades pressed Tokyo to take on a more proactive role in the alliance, which guarantees Japanese security but does not call on Japan to fight for America. The Abe government fears that if Japan does not show a broader willingness to fight alongside the U.S., then Washington might abandon its commitment to defend the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the event of a clash with China. As one member of Abe’s advisory panel on collective self-defense noted, “The United States does not want to fight for [the Senkakus]. If Japan, when push comes to shove, does not prepare to work together with the United States, then the United States will say goodbye to its participation in the defense of our islands.” A failure to aid its ally could even threaten the U.S.-Japan alliance, the bedrock of Japan’s security.

But this is an incredibly divisive issue. Many fear that enabling collective self-defense will do little but turn Japan into a glorified military lackey of the United States. And the exercise of collective self-defense directly contradicts the peace principles espoused by coalition partner New Komeito, and even irks many of the more liberal members of Abe’s own Liberal Democratic Party.

The striking aspect of the current debate on collective self-defense, however, is its historical context. The revision of Article 9 has long been a personal mission for Abe. The prime minister and likeminded conservatives want Japan to become a “normal” country with only limited restrictions on military activities. But the stormy debates and the public disquietude surrounding any attack on Article 9 convinced the prime minister to take a more flexible approach. At first he favored outright constitutional revision. When he realized that would be impossible to achieve, he found an easy way out: instead of revising the constitution, all he had to do was reinterpret it.

Call for Constitutional Amendment

The story begins shortly after Abe formed his second Cabinet. On December 31, 2012, Abe surprised political observers by drumming up support to revise Article 96 of the Japanese Constitution. Article 96 states that constitutional amendments require two-thirds support in both the Upper and Lower Houses of the National Diet, and must be ratified by a national referendum. Abe wanted to loosen the requirements, making a simple majority in both houses (followed by a national referendum) sufficient to enact constitutional amendments.

Abe in part saw Article 96 as tied to the emasculation of Article 9. And many others in Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) held the same view. LDP Vice-President Masahiko Komura, in an unguarded moment in April 2013, went on national television to trumpet the cause of “deleting” Article 9’s second clause. Komura was referring to the clause that renounces the right of belligerency and prohibits the maintenance of “land, sea, and air forces.” In fact, deleting this clause is a goal of the highly controversial LDP draft constitution, published in 2012 even before Abe formed his Cabinet. By getting rid of the phrase, conservatives believe they can turn the Japan Self-Defense Forces into a “National Defense Force,” a military that can play a more active role in international peacekeeping.

It soon became clear, however, that direct constitutional revision was unlikely at best. The Japanese public opposed the plans to revise Article 96. In every poll I have seen – from the right-wing daily Sankei Shinbun to the liberal Asahi Shinbun – public opposition to revising Article 96 outweighed support (44.7 percent opposition to 42.1 percent support in a late April 2013 Sankei poll, and 48 percent opposition to 31 percent support in a June 2013 Asahi poll). Moreover, New Komeito opposed making any overt constitutional revisions. In the end, the public reaction and consideration for its coalition partner led the LDP to shelve its public promise to revise Article 96.

This state of affairs exasperated gaffe-prone Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who showed little restraint in making known his disdain. Speaking before a like-minded audience on July 29, 2013, Aso was a bit too loose-tongued. Constitutional change, he forcibly argued, “should be done quietly. One day everybody woke up and found that the Weimar Constitution had been changed, had been replaced by the Nazi Constitution. It changed without anyone noticing. Maybe we can learn from that. No hullabaloo.”

Cabinet Legislation Bureau

Of course, a return to fascism was most definitely not Abe’s takeaway message. Instead, the lesson the prime minister seems to have learned is that if revising the constitution is out of the question, he can always reinterpret it. And he no doubt realized that the Cabinet Legislation Bureau provides an important and easy means to do so.

The Cabinet Legislation Bureau is no minor institution. It is a central actor in Japanese defense policy, and plays a major role in interpreting both the Japanese Constitution and its peace clause, Article 9. Abe decided to use this in his favor. In August 2013, he got rid of the bureau’s existing Director-General, Tsuneyuki Yamamoto, whom he had appointed to the Supreme Court.

In Yamamoto’s place, Abe installed as director-general Ichiro Komatsu, a former diplomat who was willing to step back and let the Cabinet interpret the constitution to its own ends. Shortly after taking office, Komatsu stated his willingness to follow Abe’s lead in no uncertain terms. “In the end,” Komatsu stated, “the Cabinet makes the decision [about constitutional interpretations].” He continued, “It is not correct for the Cabinet Legislation Bureau unilaterally to decide ‘left’ when the Cabinet is thinking ‘right.’” Komatsu thus turned the Cabinet Legislation Bureau into a tool of the Abe regime. And Abe took this to heart. On February 13, 2014, Abe told a Lower House Budget Committee that he is the “ultimate arbiter” of affairs concerning the constitutional interpretation.

Thus began the current push for a new constitutional interpretation of Article 9. Abe then used his advisory panel on security affairs – a private panel established during his first premiership in 2007 – to provide the intellectual justification.

The panel report, submitted to the prime minister on May 15, 2014, did exactly what Abe had hoped. It proposed to reinterpret Article 9’s renunciation of the “use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” The panel believes the phrase “international disputes” should be construed to mean “disputes directly involving Japan.” This would allow Japan greater freedom to participate in collective security missions.

In an effort to place restrictions on Japan’s use of force, however, it proposed six conditions that must be met before exercising collective self-defense. Three of them are conditional: (1) a close ally of Japan is under attack; (2) if ignored the situation would represent a grave threat to Japanese security; and (3) Japan receives a request to counterattack from the country under attack. The other three conditions are procedural: (1) the prime minister must decide to use force; (2) the Diet must approve the decision; and (3) the government must obtain permission from a third country to pass through their territory.

Since mid-May, Abe has been trying to enact a Cabinet decision to ensure that Japan’s new security role would be reflected in the new “Guidelines for US-Japan Security Cooperation,” which are set to be reviewed by the end of the year.

Recalcitrant Coalition Partner

It is looking increasingly unlikely that the current bid for an expanded security role will be successful. The Abe regime did use the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle to pressure liberals within the LDP (in particular, the Kishida faction) to tow the party line. But Abe has been unable to tame coalition partner New Komeito.

Instead, much to the chagrin of the liberals in the LDP, New Komeito has led the vanguard of opposition. Since May 20, the LDP and New Komeito have held talks to try to come to an agreement on collective self-defense. The discussions have focused on 16 different scenarios in which the right of collective self-defense could be invoked. But New Komeito’s willingness to come to an agreement has always been hampered by its own power base, the Nichiren Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, which remains staunchly opposed to collective self-defense.

New Komeito has continued to stall, hoping that no agreement would be forthcoming before the special Diet session in the fall. These stall tactics look likely win the day. On June 10, LDP Vice-President Komura hinted at the impasse in negotiations, telling Abe that the discussions “have not progressed as we had hoped.” And time is running out to introduce any new bills to the Diet: the current Diet session closes on June 22.

The ruling coalition is by no means the Abe administration’s only concern. The Japanese public largely disapproves of any effort to reinterpret the constitution to allow for collective self-defense. In a recent poll conducted by the Nihon Keizai Shinbun, 51 percent of respondents noted their opposition, far outstripping the 28 percent who support a new constitutional interpretation. And a pacifist domestic sentiment could potentially cause embarrassment for Abe, as Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution has been shortlisted for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize (through the group “Japanese people who conserve Article 9”). What an awkward moment it would be for Japan’s prime minister if he were chosen to receive the Nobel Peace Prize as he works to weaken Article 9!

Towards Reinterpretation

Yet Abe has been trudging ahead relentlessly, moving from revising the constitution to reinterpreting it. And his arguments for doing so are – from a certain point of view – quite logical. The bizarre restraints on Japanese security behavior could become a stumbling block in alliance relations with Washington. To ensure a commitment by Washington to defend Japanese interests in Asia, Tokyo must be willing to share some of the security burden. This is something the United States would most definitely welcome. In this context, the political value of showing an overall readiness to work with the United States may be more important than the military value of actually exercising collective self-defense.

At the same time, reinterpreting Article 9 could deal a further blow to Japan’s relations with its neighbors in East Asia. Abe’s relations are still chilly with his South Korean and Chinese counterparts, made worse by his overt nationalism, his recent visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, and his woeful disregard of Japan’s imperial past. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has repeatedly voiced concerns about any changes in Japan’s defense policy, particularly at a time when mutual distrust pervades Northeast Asia. Moreover, 95 percent of Chinese and 85 percent of Koreans polled in April by the Asahi Shinbun noted their opposition to Japan exercising the right of collective self-defense.

Meanwhile, tensions have been flaring with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. With no emergency hotline connecting Japan with China, some worry an incident in the East China Sea could quickly escalate out of control. In this sense, reinterpreting Article 9 might make unneeded waves in an already typhoon-prone region.

Collective self-defense thus presents a real dilemma for Japan. Enhancing Japanese security capabilities and exercising collective self-defense – something done to solidify the alliance with the United States – might actually put Japan at risk of getting sucked into a full-blown war.

In the end, the efforts to permit collective self-defense represent the latest attack on Article 9. As Sophia University Professor and opponent of revision Koichi Nakano maintains, “The lifting of the ban on the collective defense is basically taking any remaining meaning out of Article 9, so in that sense it’s really going to be undermining the constitution itself.”

Whether Abe & Co. will be successful at doing that remains to be seen. Right now, it appears that New Komeito’s stalling tactics will force Abe to shelve the issue at least until the next Diet session begins. Nonetheless, the efforts to reinterpret the constitution strongly suggest the future that awaits Japan’s peace clause: Article 9 will be revised in practice long before it is revised in fact.

Jeremy A. Yellen is a historian of modern Japan and an Associate in Research at Harvard University.