Japan pushes for ‘collective self-defense’ after 1947 law

Japan is in the middle of a sea change in its foreign and defense policy.

“Throughout the postwar period,” writes Kenneth Pyle, Professor of History at University of Washington, “Japan has occupied a uniquely subordinate position in the American world order. The result of unconditional surrender, occupation, and an imposed alliance, subordinate independence has compelled Japanese deference to American hegemony.”

The cornerstone of such subordination has been the Article 9-a clause outlawing war as a means to settle international disputes-in the National Constitution of Japan, written by General Douglas MacArthur’s aides and came into effect on May 3, 1947.

The Article 9 means that for Japan, says Professor Pyle, “there would be no overseas deployment of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, no participation in collective defense, no power-projection capability, no nuclear arms, no arms exports, no sharing of defense-related technology, no more than 1 per cent of GNP for defense expenditure, and no military use of space.”

Since taking power a year and a half ago, however, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has demonstrated to the world that he is determined to break postwar, anti-nationalist restrictions and to assert an independent and sovereign Japan.

Prime Minister Abe is bringing about a “quiet revolution” in Japan’s foreign and defense policy. As Joseph Yi at South Korea’s Hanyang University noticed, “Like the former Ronald Reagan and the current Vladimir Putin, Shinzo Abe seeks to restore Japan’s national pride and strength and to construct a liberal-minded nationalism. Mr. Abe’s specific policies often lack popular support, but the man himself, and the ideal of a strong, autonomous nation, resonate with the public.”

On May 15, 2014, Japan’s Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security met at the Kantei, Japanese prime minister’s office, and the Panel Chairman Shunji Yanai handed a long-anticipated report to Prime Minister Abe. The Yanai Report recommended a constitutional reinterpretation of Article 9 that would permit Japan to engage in “collective self-defense”.

“This report,” writes the Panel member Yuichi Hosoya, “is a historic event in two respects. First, the panel was originally established in April 2007, during the first Abe administration. Seven long years later the panel’s final report was complete. Second, the report includes a call for approving limited exercise of the right of collective self-defense, which has been completely forbidden under the existing interpretation of the Constitution; if realized, this will mean a dramatic advance in international cooperation within Japan’s defense policy.”

What is collective self-defense and why is it so important?

“Under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty,” explains a Wall Street Journal Review and Outlook ecolumn, “American forces are supposed to aid Japan if it is attacked. But the obligation does not go the other way. Because of the way the constitution’s Article 9 is interpreted now, Japanese forces could do nothing to help the U.S. if it were under attack. If a nuclear-tipped missile flew over Japan toward the U.S., Japan’s warships equipped with missile interceptors would have to let it pass.”

The Yanai Report finally cleared way for Prime Minister Abe to move forward with the reinterpretation of the 1947 Japanese constitution and to end the 67-year ban on “collective self-defense.”

When the final approval of a constitution amendment may take months, momentum is ramping up. “Things are actually moving rapidly,” says Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, “many people in Japan feel that the time has come for changes that are long overdue.”

What is perhaps more important, points out Noah Smith of Stony Brook University, Prime Minister Abe “has turned his nationalism into something that looks like liberal internationalism, standing up for the various small Asian countries that have been bullied by China. Instead of being an apologist for old Japanese imperialism, Abe is championing the rule of law and the freedom of the seas.”

“Mr. Abe,” as the Wall Street Journal column stated, “deserves praise for trying to make Japan into a normal nation that can play a leadership role in Asia. Tokyo has contributed to peace and made amends for past behavior over the last seven decades. It is time Japan carries its weight keeping its neighborhood safe for democracy.”

Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.