Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s move toward a defence doctrine that would enable Japan to play a bigger role in its own defence, and in collective military actions with allies such as the United States, is sensible and welcome. It may be also be a bit of a stretch under Article 9, the Japanese Constitution’s “renunciation of war” clause.
The Constitution, adopted after the Second World War, contains a clause that is essentially pacifist. Japan, it says, renounces war and even the threat of the use of force. The Constitution also says that “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”
Previous governments have already put in place broad reinterpretations of the Constitution. For decades, Japan has had an army, navy and air force – though it always carefully refers to them as “self-defences forces.” The country has sent troops overseas on peacekeeping missions to Cambodia and into the war zone in Iraq – but those troops have operated under such strict rules of engagement that other militaries have had to be called on to escort and protect Japanese soldiers. The cabinet resolution passed last week by the Abe government is the latest attempt to address that, and to stretch the wording of the Japanese Constitution.
In most democratic countries, of course, constitutions are changed by constitutional amendment, and Japan does have a procedure for that. What troubles many Japanese is how the constitution is being re-written by the executive, without using a more broad and democratic amending formula.
The United States and its allies want Japan to be more of a contributor to defence. China regularly objects to any normalization of Japanese military policy, and South Korea expresses discomfort, too. But most of the rest of Asia is worried about the rising power of China. When Article 9 was written, the Japanese Empire had just been defeated in its attempt to conquer the Asia-Pacific region. That Japan isn’t this Japan. Today, the country is a model international citizen.
Mr. Abe is right to want to change the Japanese Constitution, or at least “reinterpret” it. Japan should be less of a free rider on the armed forces of the U.S. But the manner of Mr. Abe’s change, a sound policy shift pursued by legally questionable means, grates.