EDITORIAL: Abe's unacceptable rush toward collective self-defense

March 04, 2014

What is Japan’s right to collective self-defense?

It is the nation’s right to allow the Self-Defense Forces to join a counterattack launched by an ally that has come under enemy attack.

What would it mean if Japan exercised this right?

It means Japan would become a nation at war even though it had not been attacked directly.

Does the pacifist postwar Constitution grant Japan this right?

Successive Cabinets have answered this question as follows: “International law acknowledges Japan’s right to collective self-defense, but the Constitution doesn’t allow Japan to exercise the right.”

Critics of this interpretation say Japan is the only country that makes the odd argument that it cannot use the right it legally possesses.

Indeed, Japan may be the only country that makes such a claim. But that’s because postwar Japan has been strictly maintaining the pacifist principle enshrined in Article 9 of the Constitution. There is nothing odd about it.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intends to make it possible for Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense during the current Diet session.

But Abe has no intention to do so by following formal procedures for amending the Constitution. He says he will change the government’s traditional interpretation of Article 9 and formalize it through Cabinet endorsement.

According to the spirit of the Constitution, that would be unacceptable.

This approach is also inconsistent with Abe’s oft-repeated promise to “get the Constitution back into the hands of the people.”


What kind of steps should be taken to secure the safety of the people? What should be the best way for the SDF to contribute to world peace?

The government and the Diet, of course, should discuss these questions.

Although the Cold War has ended, terrorism and regional conflict have been rising. Tension is growing in East Asia due to China’s military expansion and North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. The security situation in the world has changed drastically.

In response to these changes, the Japanese government has been gradually expanding the scope of the SDF’s activities while struggling to meet requests from the United States without violating war-renouncing Article 9.

Meanwhile, the Cabinet Legislation Bureau has maintained the positions that Japan cannot exercise its right to collective self-defense and that the SDF cannot use armed force overseas. As a result, the government has had to make some questionable arguments to justify its moves concerning SDF operations. The concept of “noncombat zone” introduced to allow the SDF to carry out humanitarian operations in Iraq is a typical example.

Abe probably wants to eliminate, once and for all, the need for the government to do such security policy balancing acts. If so, it is all the more important for the nation to have open and straightforward debate on the issue.

The prime minister is trying to end-run this process by getting an advisory panel of experts who support his policy to publish a report calling for a change in the constitutional interpretation and then giving Cabinet approval to the proposal.

A high-ranking government official close to Abe says if a new interpretation is acceptable, the government should be allowed to revise its constitutional interpretation in response to changes in the security situation.

Is this a reasonable argument?


Japan can only possess the minimum military force needed to defend itself and must not get involved in wars overseas. This is the pacifist creed this nation adopted after serious soul-searching on its wartime acts and is one of the fundamental principles of the Constitution.

This principle has not been changed even though the SDF has started operating outside Japan to take part in United Nations peacekeeping operations or humanitarian and reconstruction activities in other countries.

The government’s interpretation of the Constitution concerning the right to collective self-defense is based on a sort of agreement between the government and the public reached through many years of discussions at the Diet.

If a prime minister is allowed to change the interpretation at will, the foundation of constitutionalism on which a democratic nation is built would collapse.

Allowing Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense actually means making Article 9 a dead letter. It would undermine the foundation of Japan’s pacifism. It would sharply increase the possibility of SDF personnel killing people of other nations and being killed by people of other nations.

If the government still claims this radical policy change is necessary for Japan to live in the international community, it should engage in debate on the proposal at the Diet and seek to achieve the policy goal according to procedures for amending the Constitution set by Article 96.

According to the advisory panel’s assumptions, the mostly likely situation in which Japan needs to exercise its right to collective self-defense involves the SDF’s counterattack against an enemy that is attacking U.S. forces. But what is the actual likelihood of a situation where U.S. forces come under attack first before the SDF is attacked in an area around Japan?


In his quest to make it possible for Japan to use its right to collective self-defense at any time, Abe appears to be in a headlong rush to turn the SDF into “normal armed forces.”

In an obsessive pursuit of this vision, Abe seems to be sidestepping serious debate on the immediate questions of what kind of legislation is needed to protect Japan’s territorial integrity and to allow the SDF to play a more active role in U.N. peacekeeping operations.

It is obviously desirable for Japan to gain the understanding of its neighbors for any major change in its security policy.

The Japanese people are convinced that the SDF, even if its overseas operations were expanded, would never commit the kind of outrages the former Imperial Japanese Army once perpetrated. It is the duty of the Japanese government to ensure that this confidence in the SDF will be shared by the countries that once suffered huge damage from the Japanese military’s wartime aggressions.

The Abe administration has done nothing to fulfill this duty.

Abe has only deepened neighbors’ distrust and antipathy toward Japan by saying “the definition of what constitutes aggression has yet to be established” and visiting Yasukuni Shrine, where Class-A war criminals are honored along with general war dead.

If this administration forges ahead with its attempt to make a drastic change in Japan’s security policy, China will use the move as an excuse for a further military buildup and Western democracies will feel uneasy.

That will be certainly detrimental to the efforts to secure the interests and safety of Japanese people and maintain regional peace and stability.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 3

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Ground Self-Defense Force members stand guard near Samawah, Iraq, in March 2004. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Ground Self-Defense Force members stand guard near Samawah, Iraq, in March 2004. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Ground Self-Defense Force members stand guard near Samawah, Iraq, in March 2004. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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