TOKYO — The Japanese government is not seeking to deny Japan’s wartime role with its campaign to amend the country’s U.S.-written constitution, according to a key ally of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
But mounting efforts to allow the Japanese military to take up arms has many scholars, at home and abroad, concerned about the way the Abe government is trying to revise the 70-year old document.
“There are some misunderstandings that the Liberal Democratic Party is trying to deny history, but we don’t intend to do that at all,” said Yosuke Isozaki, a lawmaker in the ruling LDP and a leader of the group pushing for constitutional change.
Isozaki, in an interview in his office this past week, also addressed the worry voiced by many observers that the government’s intensifying push to ease restrictions on the military amounts to a bid to revise the constitution by stealth, short-circuiting the democratic process.
“Amending the constitution can only be done if the people agree,” he noted. “Also, this requires the agreement of two-thirds of both houses of the Diet,” Japan’s parliament. “So it’s a very difficult challenge.”
Abe, a conservative former prime minister who was returned to power at the end of 2012, has made it a priority to turn Japan back into a “beautiful country.” He has focused on rebooting the economy, an effort that analysts say seems to be working, and on returning Japan to a more “normal” footing after 70 years of imposed pacifism.
Part of the latter process is already underway. In July last year, Abe’s government “reinterpreted” the constitution with a cabinet resolution ending a ban on the deployment of Japan’s military overseas. Now the Diet is debating a package of bills that would revise national security laws to, among other things, allow Japan’s self-defense forces to act in “collective self-defense” if the United States, Japan’s closest ally, came under attack.
The bills come as Japan and the United States agreed last month on new defense cooperation guidelines that — if the Diet approves them — allow Japanese troops to be deployed overseas under a wider range of circumstances. A recent Kyodo news agency poll found that almost half of respondents oppose the revised guidelines, while a third support them.
The proposed changes have also raised hackles in the region, fueling fears on the Korean Peninsula and in China that Abe wants to remilitarize Japan.
Separately, the government is accelerating its efforts to formally revise the constitution, imposed under the U.S. occupation after World War II, if the LDP and its partners win a two-thirds majority in upper house elections due next year — a majority it already holds in the lower house. If approved by parliament, changes would be put to the public in a referendum.
To destigmatize the idea of amending the constitution, the government is expected to start with relatively noncontentious issues such as environmental management and human rights.
“The people of Japan, including lawmakers, don’t have any experience of making constitutional amendments. So there is some hesitation,” Isozaki said.
But the main target of the government’s efforts is Article 9, which prohibits Japan from maintaining the potential to wage war. To lay the groundwork, authorities have begun distributing a comic book featuring a family questioning a constitution written by Americans to “make Japan powerless.”
“Japan must never again pose a threat to the world,” the cartoon has Maj. Gen. Courtney Whitney, one of the Americans who drafted Japan’s constitution in 1946, saying. The family then discusses how the document could be updated.
Many experts, here and in other countries, are deeply troubled by the Abe government’s approach of preparing the way by “reinterpreting” the constitution’s language regarding the military.
“I don’t think there is any way that you can read the constitution and, with a clear mind, say that it allows collective self-defense,” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo’s Sophia University and a critic of the Abe government.
“This is basically changing the constitution through the back door. The constitution that is supposed to constrain the government is being de facto changed by the government,” he said.
In an interview with the left-leaning Asahi newspaper published last week, Reiichi Miyazaki, a former director general of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, including during Abe’s first term as prime minister, said the proposed changes were clearly unconstitutional. “They would open a way to unlimited execution of force overseas as long as the U.S. requests,” Miyazaki said.
U.S. policymakers, by contrast, have welcomed Abe’s moves because they fit with Washington’s vision of a more robust Japan capable of acting as a counterweight to China.
“Prime Minister Abe is leading Japan to a new role on the world stage,” President Obama said while welcoming his Japanese counterpart to the White House last month, saying that this was helping strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance.
But Craig Martin, an expert on Japan’s constitution at Washburn University School of Law, said that Americans ought to be a little bit more circumspect about Abe’s plans, which, he said, were “entirely illegitimate” and could “do violence to the constitutional order and undermine democracy in Japan.”
“It’s an end run around the amendment procedures in the constitution,” Martin said, adding that it was as if the Obama administration were to try to reinterpret the Second Amendment so that Americans no longer had an individual right to bear arms.
“It would be inconceivable,” he said. “It would be outrageous.”
Abe, for his part, has sought to play down the impact of the changes, saying last week that Japan’s self-defense forces would be sent only to areas deemed safe. “It is a matter of course for the SDF to operate in areas where safety is secured,” he said Wednesday under questioning in the Diet.