Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to allow Japan to defend its allies are meeting opposition from a war-wary public, concerned that broadening the remit of the military could drag the country into a conflict after almost 70 years of peace.
With the cabinet agreeing to reinterpret the constitution to permit collective self-defense, Abe’s government, which has a majority in both houses, plans to submit bills starting in the autumn specifying changes to the role of the Self-Defense Forces. Surveys show ordinary Japanese are increasingly concerned about his actions, raising the risk of slow progress through the Diet as lawmakers waver.
Public opposition is high despite China sparring with Japan over territory, beefing up its military presence in the region and calling Abe a trouble-maker. His move to reinterpret the pacifist Article 9 of the postwar constitution is seen as potentially opening the door to major changes to the defense forces.
“A lot of Japanese people think it’s Article 9 that has brought them peace,” said Andrew Horvat, a visiting professor at Josai International University in Chiba, who researches postwar reconciliation in Europe and Asia. “People identify with this and it’s difficult to suddenly accept the idea that peace is purchased at a price ― and that price is vigilance and vigilance requires armed forces or a credible response to countries that don’t buy into the idea of peace.”
Two media surveys last weekend found half or more of respondents opposed collective self-defense, even with Abe speaking publicly numerous times to explain the rationale for the change. A man set himself on fire in in the busy shopping area of Shinjuku in central Tokyo on June 29 after making a speech opposing the change, while thousands demonstrated outside Abe’s residence on June 30 and July 1. Police have given no details about the man’s motives and his condition. Media coverage of the incident has been limited in Japan.
Media in Japan run daily stories on China’s assertiveness and rising military power. Ships and planes regularly tail one another around disputed East China Sea islands known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese and Japan has accused China of flying fighter jets within tens of meters of its surveillance planes in the area.
“Ever since I was a child I’ve thought of Article 9 as Japan’s treasure,” said Ryo Irie, 45, who runs a shop selling traditionally-made scissors in Fukuoka Prefecture, on the southern island of Kyushu which faces the East China Sea. He joined the June 30 Tokyo protest against the changes. “I heard a lot from my grandfather about the war. How he was in Manchuria and his superiors killed Chinese people. I learned about the importance of Article 9 through those tragic stories.”
Abe pressed for the reinterpretation after shelving an effort to make it easier to actually amend the charter, a move that currently requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament. That approach has not reassured the majority of the public and writing a new constitution remains the goal of his Liberal Democratic Party.
“The constitution is supposed to be a means for the people to restrain the government,” Irie said. “He’s trying to overturn that completely. This plan is a coup d’etat against the Japanese people.”
Japan’s armed forces have not fired a shot in battle since the war and the country has provided land and funds for U.S. military bases in return for the protection of its ally’s “nuclear umbrella.”
“By improving deterrence and contributing more to regional and global peace and stability, I believe we can better assure Japan’s own peace and security,” Abe said Tuesday in Tokyo. “We will continue to defend the pacifism contained in the constitution. There will be absolutely no change to the path of peace Japan has walked since the war. Instead, this will make that path even more certain.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the change will make the U.S.-Japan alliance “more effective.”
“This decision is an important step for Japan as it seeks to make a greater contribution to regional and global peace and security,” Hagel said in a statement posted on the Department of Defense website. “The new policy also complements our ongoing efforts to modernize our alliance through the revision of our bilateral guidelines for defense cooperation.”
China and South Korea, where resentment of Japan’s past colonization runs deep, were not as welcoming. The change has also caused a degree of unease in Abe’s coalition, particularly his junior coalition partner, the Buddhist-backed New Komeito party.
“I can’t agree to this easily,” LDP lawmaker Seiichiro Murakami told reporters last week. The interpretation of the constitution should not be changed by cabinet resolution, he said. “It’s an extremely important problem that involves a major change of direction for Japan after 70 years.”
The cabinet resolution allows for use of a minimum of force in cases where a country with close ties to Japan comes under attack. The use of force would only be allowed if the attack threatens Japan’s existence and there is no other means of protecting the Japanese people.
“China’s actions have been certainly aggressive and assertive,” said Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “It’s stoked an arc of anxiety stretching from New Delhi to Tokyo. It is very interesting that despite all that the Japanese people are clinging to their peace constitution and that Abe is seen to be undemocratic.”
Japan strengthening its defense posture could lead China to become even more aggressive, said Rana Mitter, Professor of modern Chinese history and politics at the Institute for Chinese Studies at Oxford University.
“China will use this move by Japan to make the case that it needs to look after its own interests in Asia and may use Japan’s move to try and justify further military spending,” he said.
While the protests are smaller than those against nuclear power in the summer of 2012, or a law toughening penalties for leaking state secrets passed in December, surveys show a majority of people in Japan oppose collective self-defense.
A poll by the Mainichi newspaper on June 27-28 found 58 percent of respondents against it, with more than 70 percent saying they feared the policy change would lead to Japan being entangled in another country’s war. Support for Abe fell to 45 percent, the lowest figure in the Mainichi polls since he took office in December 2012. The paper polled 1,008 people by phone and did not give a margin of error.
A Nikkei newspaper poll from June 27 to 29 found that 50 percent of respondents opposed collective self-defense.
“It’s because we have this constitution that Japan is trusted around the world,” Kazuko Kajino, 65, from Tokyo said June 30 at the protest outside Abe’s residence. “Everyone knows that whatever happens we won’t invade.”
Reinterpreting the constitution may open the gates to further changes to the defense forces down the track, according to Kingston from Temple University.
“Everybody understands that this is a blank check,” he said. “Once you’ve agreed to collective self-defense, there is no turning back.” (Bloomberg)