Tokyo Report

Japan’s New Security Legislation: A Missed Opportunity

By focusing solely on constitutionality, Japan missed the opportunity for a frank debate on its actual security policy.

Japan’s New Security Legislation: A Missed Opportunity
Credit: Japanese Diet image via Sean Pavone /

On July 16, Japan’s House of Representatives (Lower House) passed a legislative package that is critical for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s national security agenda. The bill now goes to its House of Councillors (Upper House) for consideration and vote.

The deliberation process turned out to be far rockier than Abe anticipated. In particular, the discourse on the security legislation turned increasingly confrontational after June 4, when three respected constitutional scholars who testified at the special committee on constitution all stated that they believed that the proposed legislation package was unconstitutional.

In fact, the nature of the discourse in the Diet that unfolded after June 4 was almost a flashback of the two previous Diet debates, one during and after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the other in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In both cases, the debate almost solely focused on the legal aspect — constitutionality, in particular — of the legislation proposed by the government to authorize a certain action by the Japanese government. In both cases, there was little, if any, debate about whether the response proposed by the government was in Japan’s national security interest, or whether the proposed legislation provided the Japanese government with sufficient tools to address the security challenges under discussion.

This time, it was no different.  After June 4, all eyes were on the constitutionality of the proposed legislation. The bill’s supporters and critics alike mostly stopped talking about whether the proposed legislation provides Japanese government a proper tool to address Japan’s security challenges, many of which it has been quickly intensifying in the last several years.

It did not have to turn out that way. The submission of the security legislation could have served as a catalyst for a robust debate on what the new principles of Japanese national security policy are, beyond the vague notion of “proactive contribution to international peace.” It could have sparked a more dynamic discussion on how the security environment Japan faces has changed since the end of the Cold War. Above all, the proposed legislation, to its proponents and opponents alike, could have provided an opportunity to ponder how recent trends in security threats — cybersecurity issues, the prevalence of non-state actors as the destabilizing force, etc — may have made the existing legal framework woefully inadequate to address the security challenges of today and tomorrow. In short, the legislation could have begun a process that is long overdue for Japan — a thoughtful discourse on Japan’s future national security policy that is rooted in reality, not in ideology.

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However, the uproar in the Diet since June 4 demonstrated that, 25 years after the end of the Cold War, Japanese leaders are still incapable of holding such a discourse. Opponents of the legislation could have presented a credible alternative vision for Japan’s security policy where Japan can remain as a responsible member of international community without changing the existing legal framework. Instead, they resorted to ideological and emotional arguments, labeling the package as “war legislation” (which is far from what the actual legislation authorizes). Supporters of the legislation did no better when they countered the criticism by attempting a point-by-point rebuttal vis-à-vis the opposition, rather than presenting a more strategic argument for why these laws are necessary. In the process, some junior LDP members clearly overstepped the boundary by insinuating intimidation against the media, further undermining the government’s efforts.

Now that the legislations have passed the Lower House, they will be enacted by September 27, before the end of the current Diet session. But the division within Japan will remain long after the legislation is enacted, and is likely to come back to haunt the Japanese government when it finds itself in the position of having to utilize the new laws.