Despite huge protests around the country, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet on July 1 approved changes to Japan’s postwar security policy that could lead to the Self-Defense Forces’ use of military force in overseas battles.
The Cabinet approved a document that revises the government’s interpretation of war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense.
The document states that military force can be used as “a means of self-defense,” enabling future administrations to decide to dispatch the SDF on collective security operations sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council for military action against an invading nation.
Despite a marked departure from Japan's traditional national security policy, Abe said, “The (SDF) will only be allowed to use force for a minimum required level of self-defense. The basic way of thinking we have had about the interpretation of the Constitution is unchanged.”
At a news conference at the prime minister's office in the evening, Abe emphasized that “the risk that Japan will be involved in a war will be reduced further with (today’s) Cabinet approval.”
He said there is a misconception that Japan will be involved in a war to protect another nation.
“Such a situation will never happen,” Abe said. “What the Constitution allows for are only self-defense measures to maintain the existence of our country and protect our people. We will not use force for the sole purpose of defending a foreign country.”
Abe added that he intends to obtain an understanding from the public through Diet deliberations.
“Based on the Cabinet approval, we will immediately start to prepare related bills by setting up a team (of officials),” he said. “As soon as the bills are ready, we will submit them to the Diet for deliberations.”
Earlier in the day, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in front of the prime minister's office on July 1 to voice their opposition.
The previous day, about 10,000 protesters turned up, according to organizers.
“Don’t send our youths to the battlefield,” they shouted on July 1. Others yelled, “Protect Article 9.”
A 46-year-old man from Tokyo’s Nakano Ward took the day off from work to join the protest.
“I felt I had to come here today when I thought about the next few decades,” he said. “I will continue to express my opposition.”
A 45-year-old elementary school teacher took an overnight bus from Oita Prefecture in Kyushu to the nation’s capital to send a message to the prime minister: “Don’t send my students to the battlefield.”
The teacher said: “Why is Prime Minister Abe in such a hurry on this issue? If the exercise of the right to collective self-defense is allowed, it will quickly lead to amending Article 9 of the Constitution.”
Protests were held in other locations around Japan.
In Sendai, members of groups seeking to protect the Constitution as well as labor unions handed out fliers to commuters.
One commuter who received the flier and opposed the change in constitutional reinterpretation said, “I wonder if the politicians are listening to the voices of the people.”
Opinion polls have shown that the majority of voters in Japan are opposed to Japan exercising the right to collective self-defense.
But instead of revising the Constitution, which requires approval by two-thirds of lawmakers in both Diet houses--and a national referendum--Abe decided to seek support from his own Cabinet to reinterpret the government’s interpretation of the Constitution.
New Komeito, the pacifist-leaning junior partner in the ruling coalition, had opposed the Abe administration’s move.
But the party decided on June 30 to accept the reinterpretation.
New Komeito members met on the morning of July 1 with their Liberal Democratic Party counterparts and accepted the document that was later submitted to the Abe Cabinet.
The two parties then met separately to gain internal party approval of the document.
The Abe Cabinet held a special meeting on the afternoon of July 1 and approved the change.
At a meeting on June 30, some New Komeito members called for a more cautious approach, citing opposition to the plan among the general public. However, party members accepted the proposal of New Komeito Secretary-General Yoshihisa Inoue to leave the final decision to the party leadership.
Later on June 30, New Komeito executives, including party chief Natsuo Yamaguchi, decided to approve the document.
According to the document, the three conditions that allow Japan to exercise the right to individual self-defense have been revised into conditions that must be met before the SDF can use force.
One of the conditions for collective self-defense is when “a clear danger exists that threatens the survival of Japan and could fundamentally overthrow the right of the Japanese people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The government and LDP eased New Komeito’s initial opposition to the change in government interpretation by going along with some of the junior partner’s views, including the wording about the clear danger existing to fundamentally overthrow the rights of the people.
However, the three conditions also contain the concept of “the use of force as a means of self-defense,” leaving open the possibility that Japan could exercise not only its right to collective self-defense but also participate in U.N.-backed collective security measures.
Past administrations have said Japan was prohibited from both exercising its right to collective self-defense and engaging in collective security operations because such activities would go beyond the minimum required level of self-defense allowed by the Constitution.
The Cabinet-approved document allows for the use of force as a means of self-defense not only when Japan comes under military attack, but also when a nation with a close relationship to Japan comes under attack.
And it will be up to the administration of the time to decide on the SDF’s use of force after judging if a clear danger threatens Japan’s survival or could overthrow the important rights of the people.
Article 9 has clearly banned the use of force abroad. But exercising the right to collective self-defense as well as participating in collective security operations could lead to the use of force overseas.
Future administrations would be given much more leeway to dispatch SDF members abroad if they felt that a clear danger existed for Japan, even if the military action was taking place in a distant land and Japan itself was not under direct attack.
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