EDITORIAL: Japan's democracy to be put to the test

July 02, 2014

Democracy took root in Japan nearly 70 years ago after the country's defeat in World War II. Who would have thought someone could overturn it so easily? But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has done just that.

On July 1, the Abe Cabinet approved a document that revises the government’s interpretation of the Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense. It came merely six weeks after Abe said he was considering doing so. Looking back on the process, we have to say that the Abe administration has undermined the nation's democracy.

Incredible as it is for our law-abiding nation, Abe skipped the due process for revising the Constitution and forced his way after discussions by the ruling coalition parties that treated the policy shift as a foregone conclusion.

REINTERPRETING THE CONSTITUTION TO EFFECTIVELY REVISE IT

While the issue of collective self-defense was being debated, we heard U.S. and European security experts and diplomats urging Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense "in order to enhance the deterrence power in East Asia." They also voiced incredulity at "Japan's inability to come to rescue for troops of other nations on United Nations peacekeeping operations."

But the Japanese Constitution contains Article 9, which is a self-imposed restriction on use of force based on the nation's contrition for its wartime actions. Even though keeping Japan disarmed was part of the Allied occupation policy, we can appreciate that Article 9 must seem unreasonable to today's European and American military experts.

And we do not deny that ever since the Self-Defense Forces began participating in U.N. peacekeeping operations and other missions overseas, it has become difficult to juggle Japan's stance with requests from the international community.

Still, Japan has maintained Article 9 as a promise to itself to remain a non-belligerent nation. It is also a declaration of pacifism to Asian neighbors and the international community at large. Even though there are Japanese citizens who say Article 9 should be revised, theirs is not a majority voice yet.

This is the solid reality, and yet the Abe administration is trying to sneak around it.

If the gap between Article 9 and the reality of national security becomes unbridgeable, then the gap should be filled with the public's consent. That is the responsibility of the people's elected representatives, and the procedures are clearly defined under Article 96.

The Cabinet decision of July 1 represented a 180-degree reversal of the government's longstanding position. It was tantamount to forcing the people to accept that what they had been told was "black" is now "white." This was a blatant case of effectively amending the Constitution by reinterpretation.

It is unconscionable that the roots of pacifism, one of the fundamental principles of the Constitution, have been distorted by just a handful of politicians. This is going to become an extremely dangerous precedent in Japanese politics.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party explains, as well as spells out in its draft of a revised Constitution, that basic human rights may be restricted in order to protect "public interests and public order." This is something that deeply disturbs many constitutional scholars and jurists, who believe personal liberties will be sacrificed for national interests under the LDP-proposed Constitution.

If any extreme reinterpretation of the Constitution were to be permitted, even fundamental human rights could be reduced to mere words with no substance. And it could destroy the very soul or essence of the Constitution, which recognizes the diverse values of individuals and keeps the powers of public authorities in check.

NO REALISTIC DEBATE ON SDF DISPATCH

The Abe administration's foreign policy and review of its security policy can hardly be considered realistic.

North Korea, with its nuclear and missile development programs, poses the greatest threat to Japan. Japan would have to work closely with the United States if there was any sign of hostilities breaking out on the Korean Peninsula. To prevent such an emergency, the cooperation of South Korea and China is indispensable. But the Abe administration obviously refuses to see that the Cabinet decision of July 1 will only aggravate Japan's already sorely strained relations with South Korea and China.

As for tensions surrounding the disputed Senkaku Islands, Japan's use of the right to collective self-defense is not directly linked with the situation. In fact, even some SDF officers are arguing that the first thing Japan needs to do now is to give greater powers to the Japan Coast Guard, but the matter has never been debated to anyone's satisfaction.

Participating in collective self-defense means the SDF using force to counter an armed attack against a country other than Japan. And this means, in turn, that the SDF will no longer be acting in "self-defense." This is the greatest change in the history of the SDF, which coincidentally marked the 60th anniversary of its foundation on July 1.

We cannot possibly say that sufficient discussions have been conducted prior to overturning what has always been axiomatic--that the SDF will fight to defend Japan and will not use force overseas.

This is another way of saying that neither the Japanese people nor politicians can hardly be said to have really thought through what it means to send SDF troops to overseas battlegrounds where they will kill or be killed.

Any discussion about SDF dispatch must be completely open and exhaustive. It must take place in the Diet and by military and other experts, definitely not by a handful of ruling coalition lawmakers behind closed doors. And most importantly, the government must have the approval of the public through a referendum.

The Abe administration fled from it all.

At a news conference on July 1, Abe stressed his "responsibility to protect the lives of Japanese citizens." But being responsible is definitely no reason for changing the very substance of the Constitution. We, the people, must never overlook this fact.

ARTICLE 9 NOT DEAD

The Abe administration has arbitrarily reinterpreted the Constitution, but Article 9 is still very much alive. And even though the Abe Cabinet has given the green light to Japan's exercise of the right to collective self-defense, the government cannot assign new responsibilities to the SDF unless the pertinent laws are revised and new enabling laws are instituted.

Although long overdue, it is time for all constitutional debate to move to the Diet, where the sort of equivocation and obfuscation that were in ample evidence during the LDP-New Komeito talks must never be accepted.

Will the Diet be able to block the reckless attempt by the Abe administration?

We should not just pin our hopes on opposition legislators who will be challenging the ruling coalition in the Diet. Grass-roots protests and media campaigns are also indispensable components in any democratic system, and Japan's democracy itself is about to be tested.

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 2

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a news conference on July 1 (The Asahi Shimbun)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a news conference on July 1 (The Asahi Shimbun)

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  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a news conference on July 1 (The Asahi Shimbun)

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