Japan moves to loosen restraints on military

The label “historic” is being applied to the move yesterday by Prime Minister Abe to “reinterpret” Article Nine of Japan’s constitution, which limits the use of armed force to self-defense. In the new dispensation, Japan will be allowed to use armed force in support of allies who are under attack.

The move has drawn severe condemnation from China, which is provoking Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines with aggressive claims of territoriality on islands and ocean territory.  AP reports:

“Beijing opposes Japan’s act of hyping the China threat,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily briefing. The new policy “raises doubts about Japan’s approach to peaceful development.”

South Korea, which endured harsh colonial rule by Japan in the first half of the last century, is not pleased, but is a bit more restrained:

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Kwang-il said: “The South Korean government views it as a significant revision to the defence and security policy under the postwar peace constitution, and is paying a sharp attention to it.”

This is notably restrained language by South Korea. It must be understood in the context of Japan potentially helping that country and the United States respond to a potential North Korean attack. Such an attack is not unthinkable, but Japanese participation would be used by the North against the South, to portray it as a puppet of hated Japan and the United States. 

The phrase “collective self-defense” is being applied to rationalize the change, which must be adopted by Japan’s parliament before taking formal effect. The BBC summarizes opinion on what the phrase means:

·  In the past Japan could use force only in self-defence. Under the proposed change, Japan's military will be able to come to the aid of allies if they come under attack from a common enemy

·  Other conditions would apply, according to reports, including that there should be a clear threat to the Japanese state and that people's right to life and liberty could be subverted

·  Examples from officials of "collective self-defence" could include Japan shooting down a missile fired by North Korea at the US and Japan taking part in mine-sweeping operations in key sea lanes during a conflict

·  Japan's PM says the change does not mean taking part in multilateral wars, like the US-led war in Iraq

The move sparked protests, including a demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s office by hundreds, or perhaps a thousand people, not a huge turnout in a metropolis bigger than New York City. However, the move is not wildly popular at home, not to mention among Japan’s neighbors:

Polls taken by three national dailies in the past week showed that at least half of respondents are opposed to the idea of Japan exercising its right to collective self-defense, with a third or fewer in favor. More than half of the respondents said the policy shift shouldn’t happen through a cabinet decision alone.

Without question, Abe is bypassing the formal mechanism for amending the constitution, and substituting “living constitution” rationales, such as have been used by the left in the United States. Without question, this is trickery and evasion. But Japan has a long tradition of rationalizing written documents so as to be able to accomplish desired ends, and besides the constitution was drafted in English by American Occupation forces, though that has never been formally admitted. (I have personally met the late Beate Gordon who, as young woman working for the Occupation, personally drafted the clause of the constitution relating to the equality of the sexes.)

This move will both provoke and warn China that its ham-handed assertion of power in East Asia is provoking reactions that harm its interests. The memories of Japan’s depredations in China have not faded, in part because they were horrific, but also because they are useful to an autocratic regime that needs an external boogeyman to rally its people against.

The news is quite welcome to American military planners, who now are able to work even more closely with our Japanese allies in our “pivot toward Asia” – which is all about China’s rise and the reaction of its neighbors.

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