Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday in a nationally televised address that Japan should allow its military to come to the aid of allies under attack, a divisive step that has been banned since the aftermath of World War II and would require a reinterpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution.
The reinterpretation still faces major legislative hurdles, but it would mark a drastic shift in the way Japan uses its military, known as the Self-Defense Forces. Abe said his government would seek to lift the ban on what is known as collective self-defense as a way to “strengthen deterrent force” in an increasingly volatile region.
“It is necessary to deepen cooperation with other countries so that we can seamlessly . . . cope with any situation to protect our peaceful lives,” Abe said, according to the Reuters news agency, adding that Japan’s peaceful posture would not change.
By allowing for collective self-defense, Japan would open areas for cooperation with the United States and would be allowed, for instance, to help a U.S. vessel under attack on the high seas. But the potential for expanded military involvement also would spark concern in a region that harbors memories of Japan’s runaway militarism in the early 20th century.
With his evening speech, Abe made his most emphatic pitch yet for a change he considers long overdue. His address came in tandem with an advisory panel report, released earlier in the day, that provided a detailed rationale for Japan to reinterpret its constitution to expand the role of its military in defense of friendly nations and in United Nations operations that require military measures. Abe formed the panel of handpicked advisers last year.
Japan’s constitution, drawn up by U.S.-led occupiers in bombed-out postwar Tokyo, is a document both celebrated and shackling. It renounces war and has ushered Japan through decades of pacifism. But it also has never been changed, with any revision requiring a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament as well as a national referendum.
As an alternative to constitutional change, Japan has reinterpreted the document, which, read literally, bans land, sea and air forces, as well as military hardware. With reinterpretations that began in 1954, Japan has gradually created one of the world’s most advanced militaries — but also one of its most limited.
For decades, the government has deemed that the Self-Defense Forces must use the minimum force necessary to stave off a direct threat. In an often-cited example, under the current constitutional interpretation, Japan would be unable to intercept a ballistic missile fired from North Korea that might be headed for the United States.
Abe’s advisory panel made the case Thursday that Japan’s self-
interest is still at stake farther afield. The report argued that the “survival of Japan would be affected” if its alliance with Washington was undermined because Japan had not responded adequately to a crisis, including a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The United States, which has 53,000 troops stationed in Japan, has provided security backing for Tokyo since 1960.
Japan’s restrictions could also be exposed in the disputed waters of the East China Sea or the South China Sea if a friendly nation were to come under attack. The report specifically cited North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and China’s increasing military spending.
“Considering the remarkable scale and speed of the changes occurring in the security environment,” according to a translated version of the report, posted on the prime minister’s Web site, “Japan is now facing a situation where adequate responses can no longer be taken under the constitutional interpretation to date in order to maintain the peace and security of Japan and realize peace and stability in the region.”
Abe is not the first prime minister to suggest a change in Japan’s ban on collective self-defense, but he is perhaps the most controversial. Particularly in China and South Korea, Abe is viewed as hawkish and confrontational, and eager to play down Japan’s past wartime atrocities. Even in Japan, Abe’s vision of a more “normal” security posture is a delicate subject. About 63 percent of voters oppose the idea of collective self-defense, a poll by the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun newspaper indicated last month.
For Japan to lift the ban on collective self-defense, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party will need help from New Komeito, a coalition partner with a traditionally passive stance. New Komeito’s president, Natsuo Yamaguchi, has indicated to the Japanese news media that he is on the fence about the move.
The advisory panel report said Japan should exercise its right to collective self-defense only if a situation poses a grave threat to national security and involves an ally that clearly solicits Japanese involvement. Any use of force must be approved by the prime minister and parliament.
Yuki Oda in Tokyo contributed to this report.