Shinzo Abe’s government may have just taken its loudest step yet away from Japan’s official post-War pacifism. At a Washington meeting with new U.S. SecDef Ash Carter, a top official from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party discussed new bilateral defense guidelines as they would apply under the Abe cabinet’s recent “reinterpretation” of the constitution’s official pacifism.
Masahiko Komura, vice president of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and former foreign minister, visited Washington and met with U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Thursday. At their meeting, Carter praised Japan’s recent efforts to develop a new legal framework to better defend Japan in an increasingly uncertain East Asia. Komura explained to Carter that the Japanese government wants to be able to exercise the now constitutionally recognized right to collective defense to defend U.S. warships attacked in contingencies that have a security impact on Japan, such as a Korean peninsula crisis. […]
On Friday, Komura gave a speech at the U.S.-Japan Security Seminar 2015 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). In his speech, he offered a concise history and clear defense of the Cabinet decision to reinterpret the Constitution last July. The Constitution is ultimately a contract with the people to defend their lives and happiness, Komura argued. Therefore, it is illogical for anything in the Constitution to constrict the government’s ability to defend the state’s very survival. […]
Through a small masterpiece of the sort of verbal gymnastics which circumventing legal precedent often demands, Komura’s explanation of the official LDP line on Japan’s new (lack of) restrictions for military use still claims to technically adhere to the constitutional pacifism:
Komura then laid out the dilemma the Cabinet faced: in Japan’s current security environment, a single-minded focus on a literal interpretation of the Constitution may not be adequate to protect the lives of the people, but at the same time, the government must not overzealously pursue security in such a way as to violate the sanctity of the Constitution. The middle ground is to figure out the minimum degree to which Japan must be prepared to use force in order to successfully protect the Japanese people. Collective self-defense is a minimum condition that Japan must have to be able to defend itself and expect the cooperation of allies and partners in its defense, Komura concluded.
That is: if Komura is to be believed, realist national security concerns rather than legal strictures will be the deciding factor in a decision over whether to call in the troops. He is also clear that the new policy extends beyond Tokyo’s most important ally:
Collective self-defense is not limited to the U.S. either. Japan is willing to cooperate with any state to do the minimum needed to protect the people’s livelihood. How collective self-defense will be invoked in various crises will depend on the impact the situation has on Japan’s security.
The Constitution should not be used to protect “pacifism” at the expense of peace and people’s lives, Komura argued. For Japan’s peace and the world’s peace, Japan needs to be more ready to play a proactive role. The current security legislation is an effort to provide the legal basis for this reinterpretation so that there can be a “seamless” response to various scenarios ranging from “gray zone” contingencies to full-scale military clashes.
The news was well received in Washington, and to ice the rising Japanese militarism cake, India and Japan just announced increased arms trade and cooperation on maritime security, citing shared concerns over rising China.
But even with all of these developments, it’s still too early to tell if Japan has really moved away from its constitutional pacifism. Abe and his government are certainly pushing for it hard, and they have been taking baby steps in that direction which may be doing a lot to politically normalize the idea of military activism abroad. Yet there are still major obstacles. The Diet, Japan’s parliament, is set to vote on the reinterpretation in June—though it may punt.
The theoretical and legal argument is important to watch, as are Abe’s rhetoric. But ultimately, the real test for whether Japan has abandoned its pacifism will come when Japan is faced with a real world decision to carry out military action for reasons other than direct self-defense.