The New York Times editorial board has come out against Prime Minister Abe’s push to authorize collective self-defense. This is welcome, but the editorial omits the aspect of the story most relevant to American readers – that their government is cheering Abe from the sidelines. This fits a pattern of the Times criticizing Abe without mentioning U.S. support. I wrote about one case here; another is a previous editorial on collective self-defense. Oddly, the Times manages to mention the U.S. role in framing Japan’s Constitution almost 70 years ago – just not it’s role in undermining it now. As a citizen of what purports to be a democracy, it is that role that matters to me, for I share in the responsibility for U.S. foreign policy, and – if only through the ballot box and campaign contributions – I exert an influence on it. The same cannot be said of Japanese policy.
Collective self-defense (or CSD) refers to aiding an ally under attack, and sometimes more broadly to joint military operations with an ally. At present, of course, Japan has just one ally – the United States. The problem for backers of Japan’s exercise of CSD is that it conflicts with Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, which states:
Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.
In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
Nationalists like Abe have long resented the Constitution as having supposedly been imposed on occupied Japan by the U.S. In fact, while it’s fair to say the Constitution was imposed on the conservative elite, the war-weary public embraced it. Somehow the same nationalists who turn up their noses at this “foreign” Constitution are also eager to serve as a strategic partner of the U.S. But for Abe, CSD is merely a steppingstone to undoing virtually all constitutional restraints on Japan’s military.
It is an unfortunate peculiarity of the Japanese system that courts tend to leave constitutional interpretation to the government. Even so, longstanding government interpretations have held that CSD is unconstitutional. Abe, therefore, has two paths open to him: revision (i.e. constitutional amendment) or reinterpretation. Revision would require, first, passage by two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Diet, and then majority support in a national referendum. Due to this formidable requirement, the Constitution has never been revised. Given the public’s widespread reluctance to further weaken Article 9, it could be even more challenging in the case of CSD. Hence, Abe seeks to achieve his goal via reinterpretation. The constantly shifting arguments his administration has amassed for this are pure sophistry; Bryce Wakefield has done the definitive takedown.
Poll results depend on the wording of questions, so pinning down public opinion on CSD is not easy. A poll by the conservative Yomiuri newspaper found 71% favored authorizing CSD, the great bulk of them insisting it be exercised only “with minimum force necessary.” The liberal Asahi, however, found the public opposed to lifting the ban on CSD exercise by a greater than two-to-one margin. In between these extremes is an NHK poll showing the public opposed to the exercise of CSD by 41% to 34%. The picture seems clearer regarding reinterpretation, with another Asahi poll finding the public by a four-to-one margin to consider reinterpretation unnecessary, at least in the short term.
The U.S. support has come from various sources, including Defense Secretary Hagel and his Chief of Staff, former officials Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye, former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Vice President Biden, and at a press conference in Tokyo last month, President Obama. Some pundits are quick to point out that in official statements the U.S. refrains from endorsing reinterpretation, couching its support in the kind of language used in its Joint Statement with Japan: “The United States welcomes and supports Japan’s consideration of the matter of exercising the right of collective self-defense.” The distinction between “supporting X” and “supporting consideration of X” would be meaningful if the U.S. ever did the latter while opposing X. When then-Prime Minister Hatoyama sought to reconsider construction of a new Marine base in Okinawa to replace an old one, he encountered not support but a brick wall from the Obama administration and ended up resigning. As that case shows, Japanese politicians resist U.S. dictates at their peril; American backing can be equally consequential.
At any rate, as in Obama’s press conference, officials sometimes slip up and say what they mean: “the alliance is so important and collective self-defense is so important.” A more accurate characterization of the U.S. position is that it doesn’t care how CSD is authorized, as long as it’s done quickly. Should Abe succeed in reinterpreting Article 9, there is no doubt that the U.S. will welcome it, popular will and constitutionalism be damned.
I must confess to some ambivalence about Article 9. On the one hand, its renunciation of war is a profound example to the world. On the other, government interpretations have subjected it for decades to death by a thousand cuts, to the point that little remains beyond a vague commitment to a defensive orientation. That means little when even outright aggressors claim to be acting defensively, and littler still coming from politicians who consider themselves entitled to redefine words and phrases at will.
The Constitution’s boldest guardians are members of the generation that remembers the horrors visited upon Japan, while many younger people are legitimately concerned about China’s military expansionism. Some are even seduced by romantic depictions of “the Greater East Asian War.”
Is an Article 9 so compromised worth saving? Or is the greater threat to constitutionalism the self-deception in maintaining an Article 9 the original meaning to which dwindling numbers of Japanese are fully committed? After all, despite forswearing “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential,” Japan has one of the highest military budgets in the world. While the Constitution’s preamble affirms “we have determined to preserve our security and existence, trusting in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world,” it was the U.S. that took on the bulk of Japan’s defense; if not for that, support for Article 9 would collapse.
Some might argue that with government interpretations already suffused with linguistic contortions and illogic, Abe is only continuing the practice. But the existence of precedents for contemptible behavior is no argument for allowing it to continue. At least Article 9 still serves as a brake on the designs of jingoists like Abe – that’s why he’s bent on neutering it. But should the prohibition on CSD fall, it is hard to see Article 9 surviving. Most Japanese constitutional scholars interpret Article 9 strictly, and one, reacting to a report just released by Abe’s hand-picked panel, said it “would remove all restrictions by Article 9 of the Constitution on the actions of the government. That would not be simply changing the constitutional interpretation, but a destruction of the Constitution.”
“Japanese people who conserve Article 9” is in contention for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. It would be a bitter irony if the prime minister were to accept an award for Article 9 after having eviscerated it. All that is certain is that if a change is to be made, it must be through the expression of the people’s will, and not government fiat.
Only the Japanese people can save their constitution. What they do not need is the U.S. government putting wind in Abe’s sails.
This article has been slightly revised since its original posting.