Abe may bypass Japan’s constitution to expand military presence

Shinzo Abe, current prime minister of Japan

Shinzo Abe, current prime minister of Japan

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be taking a detour around his nation’s pacifist constitution to build Japan’s first active military force since World War II.

The Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security, an expert panel selected by Abe, is expected to make recommendations on Thursday that would end Japan’s self-imposed ban on overseas combat missions and allow Japanese self-defense forces to fight alongside allied countries in situations where Japanese territory isn’t directly threatened.

“It’s a huge change,” Bryce Wakefield, a Japan expert at Leiden University in the Netherlands, told the Financial Times. “The current interpretation of the constitution, which does not allow for collective self-defense, has been more or less in place since 1954.”

Abe has faced determined public resistance to a referendum to change Article 9 in Japan’s constitution, which limits the country’s military to a self-defense force. Article 9 says the Japanese people will “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation,” and that “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

In recent years, the Article 9’s interpretation has been stretched to allow Japan to expand its forces. But its military can’t take part in collective actions with U.S. forces, which is a growing issue as Japan and China boost their military spending.

Abe’s party, the Liberal Democrats, also wanted to change Article 96, which requires two-thirds of both houses of parliament to approve a constitutional amendment before it goes to a national referendum for voters to approve. The change would allow just a simple majority of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, to approve a proposed amendment, and a simple majority of voters to ratify it in a national referendum.

Instead, the expert panel is expected to recommend that existing laws be rewritten to allow the Japanese military to take part in “collective self-defense,” effectively allowing Abe to expand the military’s role outside Japan without making constitutional changes.

Defense News has some details about the plan. Abe will ask his Cabinet to reinterpret the constitution to allow for collective self-defense, with legal changes going into effect this fall. The new definition will allow Japan to come to the aide of an ally that is subject to an illegal attack and in a situation that poses a clear and major threat to Japan’s national security.

The ally must request assistance, and the military involvement must be approved by Japan’s parliament.

Japan’s constitution was drawn up after World War II. It was written by American officials who were concerned with the possible return of Japan as a military power.

The Liberal Democrats say they want a truly Japanese constitution that reflects their nation and its traditional patriarchal values that place family units above individuals.

In addition to concerns about an expanded military presence, Abe’s opponents believe that a rewritten constitution would reduce rights held by women in Japanese society, since men hold the dominant role in family relations. They also think that free speech would become subordinate to a desire to keep “public order.”

But the bigger issue could be the fear of China and South Korea’s reaction to a Japan with a traditionally Japanese constitution.

One thing is clear: as the Abe administration pushes for more economic reforms, its opponents expect an equally big push to make constitutional changes, which have been called Abe’s “life work.”

Also this week, a key defense adviser told The Wall Street Journal that Japan is preparing to expand its military capabilities within the guidelines of the current constitution, including the ability to attack military bases in self-defense and the creation of a defensive unit similar to the U.S. Marine Corps.

“Our requirements for equipment and our goals change accordingly. That’s why we are revising the defense guidelines,” said Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera.

“But as we review the division of work between Japan and the U.S., we should consider developing a limited ability to strike at enemies’ strategic bases when clear intent exists to attack us. It is our understanding that Japan’s constitution allows this.”

So far, the Obama administration has supported Abe’s efforts to make the Japanese forces available to participate in international police actions.

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