Storm brews over Japan’s new security laws

Volume 3, no. 7, July 2015

Author: Ben Ascione, ANU

On 16 July Japan’s Lower House passed a package of security related-bills in a vote that was boycotted by opposition parties as tens of thousands protested outside the Diet.

Under the Article 9 ‘peace clause’ of its post-war constitution, Japan foreswears the use of military force as a means of settling international disputes. The Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) are restricted from using force unless directly attacked and are limited to the minimum level necessary to defend Japan.

In July 2014 the Abe cabinet reinterpreted the constitution to recognise limited forms of collective self-defence. The security bills, once passed, will allow this reinterpretation to be implemented. This gives the SDF the right to use force to come to the aid of a ‘foreign country in a close relationship with Japan’ if ‘three new conditions’ are satisfied: the attack threatens the Japanese people’s constitutional right to ‘life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’; there are no other means to repel the attack; and the use of force is limited ‘to the minimum extent necessary’.

In July 2014 the Abe cabinet reinterpreted the constitution to recognise limited forms of collective self-defence. The security bills, once passed, will allow this reinterpretation to be implemented.

The security bills will also expand the scope for the SDF to provide rear-area logistical support to friendly countries, and respond to so-called ‘grey zone’ infringements of Japanese territorial waters and airspace that fall short of an armed attack. They also loosen restrictions on SDF participation in UN peacekeeping operations.

But there is a great deal of opposition among the Japanese public. The antimilitarist culture that developed following Japan’s disastrous defeat in 1945 still holds sway. A significant group who oppose any exercise of collective self-defence contend that the bills are the start of a ‘slippery slope’ toward offensive military action.

Other public opposition groups argue that the conditions limiting the use of force are vague, giving future governments too much leeway to interpret them as they see fit. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s go-to example of a situation that would warrant the SDF’s right to exercise collective self-defence — a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz — has further fuelled distrust among the Japanese public.

Critics point out that Abe is pushing different messages according to the audience; in the US he emphasised the importance of the US–Japan alliance globally, while back home he has emphasised the bills are only for defending Japan.

The legality of the bills has come under scrutiny after three prominent constitutional scholars testified before the Diet that the bills were unconstitutional. The government initially maintained that these scholars were not representative of the broader consensus among academics but was forced to backtrack after it became obvious this was untrue. An independent survey of 151 leading constitutional law scholars revealed that only three held the security bills to be constitutional.

An independent survey of 151 leading constitutional law scholars revealed that only three held the security bills to be constitutional.

There is also some public distrust of Abe’s ultimate intentions. Abe is on the public record as wanting to formally revise Article 9. Doing so requires not only a two-thirds majority in both houses, but also a majority in a national referendum. Without the necessary public support for a formal revision, reinterpreting the constitution was a practical, if unpopular, way for Abe to move forward with his security agenda. Critics have labelled his approach a ‘revision by stealth’ and a ‘destruction of the rule of law

Despite public opposition, the security bills will likely pass. The Upper House has until 17 September to deliberate. But even if the Upper House fails to vote or rejects the bills, the Lower House can still pass it with a two-thirds majority, meaning Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) only needs the support of its junior coalition partner Komeito.

Abe has shown he is determined to get the bills passed. He extended the Diet session by more than three months to 27 September, and has proved willing to expend much political capital in pushing his security agenda, with his approval rate dipping below his disapproval rate.

The big questions are what impact the security bills will have on Abe’s prime ministership and on Japan’s regional security environment. The ultimate fallout on Abe’s public support rate over the security bills will largely depend on how the government uses the Upper House deliberations to clarify what situations it considers to satisfy the ‘three new conditions’ for the use of collective self-defence.

Given the state of disarray among opposition parties, Abe’s biggest concern will be challengers within his own party.

Given the state of disarray among opposition parties, Abe’s biggest concern will be challengers within his own party. LDP internal party regulations dictate that an election for the party president (effectively the prime ministership assuming the LDP is in power) must be held every three years, irrespective of the election cycle. As such, Abe must face challengers this September. While nobody has dared challenge him yet, this may change if his administration faces further blows in the coming months.

On the regional security front, the positive security gains of implementing collective self-defence — notably the increased deterrence and interoperability of the US–Japan alliance — will be mitigated if Japan fails to conduct sufficient diplomatic reassurance. China and South Korea are concerned that the legislative changes will negatively impinge on their security, especially amid tensions over history and territorial issues.

Against this background, Abe’s anticipated speech to commemorate the 70th anniversary of World War II in August will be critical in setting a platform for regional trust. Failure to unequivocally uphold Japan’s gold-standard war apology, the Murayama Statement, and its key words will fuel perceptions that Japan has not learnt from its history and increase distrust in Asia toward the changes to Japan’s security policy.

About the author

Ben Ascione is a PhD candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy. He is Japan and Korea editor at East Asia Forum and a research associate of the Japan Center for International Exchange in Tokyo

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