Public Opinion Divided over Proposed Use of Japan's Collective Self-Defense Right

June 25, 2014

Video: Japanese Only

Masahiro AkiyamaMasahiro Akiyama,President, the Tokyo Foundation

Matake KamiyaMatake Kamiya,Professor, the Graduate School of Security Studies, the National Defense Academy

Narushige MichishitaNarushige Michishita,Professor, the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS)

Yasushi KudoYasushi Kudo, President of The Genron NPO

While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is swiftly pushing his new diplomatic and security policies, the question of the right of collective self-defense is emerging as the most controversial issue in Japan. He proposes enabling Japan to exercise the collective self-defense right overseas in order to defend its allies with military actions, even when Japan is not under attack.

It has been a long-held taboo under the restrictions of the country's postwar pacifist Constitution renouncing war and the use of force as a means of settling international disputes. Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) also has maintained since l982 not to seek the collective self-defense right, only approving the right of "individual" self-defense with armed forces. But the prime minister is stepping forward to lift the restrictions by providing a reinterpretation of the Constitution.

Japanese opinion has been sharply divided over his notion, but it appears a growing number of people are shifting to support it. For example, according to a recent poll made by The Genron NPO, a Tokyo-based think tank, 52.7 percent of the polled indicated their support - positively or passively - for Abe's proposal. The adverse opinion was shared by 38.9 percent of them.

Not a few political scientists and commentators also endorse the prime minister's radical defense policy change.

"A new mood is spreading in the public mind for approving the option of exercising the right of collective self-defense to secure the effectiveness of the Japan-U.S. alliance, the nexus of Japan's security policy," says Masahiro Akiyama, president of the Tokyo Foundation. "I think it (public opinion) is changing and I am happy to see it." He attributes the shift to Japan's changing security environment, with North Korea's nuclear development threat since the 1990s and now China's recent intimidating maritime advances. Japan has grown aware that it might not be able to effectively defend itself unless the country can take collective self-defense actions, according to him.

Professor Matake Kamiya of the Graduate School of Security Studies of the National Defense Academy agrees that China's rise and greater military power have eroded the balance in Northeast Asia. "Not only that, China is actually using force to move arbitrarily in the direction it wants," he says.

He believes a natural alternative to cope with this situation is to build a new regional balance in coordination with other Asian partners - most importantly South Korea, Australia and Southeast Asian countries, as well as India. "Such a cooperative regional defense system is not possible unless Japan is able to exercise the right of collective self-defense," he says.

Prime Minister Abe plans to prepare Japan to exercise its collective self-defense right now by reinterpreting the Constitution, instead of taking the more legitimate approach of revising it. Although a constitutional revision will be a tough political challenge and will probably take years, Abe's strategic short-cut approach is stirring debate even in the pro-collective-defense camp.

In the recent survey by The Genron NPO, for example, 47 percent of those favoring the collective self-defense right responded that the defense policy should be changed through a legitimate constitutional revision and not through reinterpreting the Constitution. Meanwhile, only 33.6 percent of them supported the reinterpretation approach.

"I am aware of the call for the constitutional revision so that Japan can exercise the collective self-defense right, yet an interpretation of the Constitution should be alterable," says the Tokyo Foundation's Akiyama. "It is necessary to adapt constitutional interpretations validly to cope with changes in the environment surrounding the nation," according to him. The current interpretation - eliminating the collective self-defense right - could have been viewed too long as something "sacred" or irrevocable, he notes.

Narushige Michishita, a professor of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo says: "It is preferable to revise the Constitution, but an administration can justifiably make its own judgment." It would take a long time to revise the Constitution and meanwhile national interests can be damaged during the waiting period, he says. "A proper constitutional revision should be required only when the policy change significantly imposes new obligations on the people."

Akiyama, Kamiya and Michishita were speaking at a Genron NPO-organized discussion on the issue of Japan's right of collective self-defense. Genron NPO President Yasushi Kudo served as moderator.

It is ultimately up to the people of Japan to decide whether to accept Abe's new interpretation of the Constitution, thinks professor Kamiya. Prime Minister Abe and his government should therefore explain and discuss it more with the people, and then make a final decision based on the people's reaction, he says.

Calling for Japan's collective self-defense right, Shigeru Ishiba, secretary general of the ruling LDP, has often emphasized, meanwhile, that it would reinforce the Japan-U.S. alliance and consequently upgrade their deterrent power together in the region.

The rationale attracts some but, again, not others. According to The Genron NPO survey, 49.7 percent of the respondents agreed and 32 percent of them disagreed. Asked if the greater deterrence will contribute to building peaceful environments, 41.2 percent of the respondents agreed. Yet, 42.7 percent of them also agreed that "it will only increase tensions now when the diplomatic channels with neighboring countries are not functioning."

Professor Kamiya notes that greater deterrence by the Japan-U.S. alliance will not make China happy but that China will not be happy no matter what new positive action is taken. "It is yet questionable if we can sustain the current order as it is, without any action that will make China unhappy."

"I am optimistic," says professor Michishita of GRIPS. Japan has pledged so far that it will take no pro-security action outside Japan, which is extremely dangerous, he says. "Now Japan is (preparing) to take responsible actions to contribute to regional security, peace and prosperity," he notes. If Japan thus demonstrates its commitments properly, "it will help in the long run also to improve Japan's own stance and reputation as a pacifist country in the international community."

Having emerged as a military power prior to the war, Japan invaded its neighbors and ultimately launched the Pacific War because there was no deterrent power in the region, according to Michishita. The recent actions of China suggest that very aggressive moves are being promoted by some elements there. But, if its neighbors have deterrent power and the will to prevent its aggression in the region, it may give rise to the emergence of peace-oriented people in China pushing for peaceful co-existence and co-prosperity with the country's neighbors. "That will be an ideal development scenario," he says.

Excerpts of Other Remarks on Japan's Collective Self-Defense Right:

Mr. Akiyama:
(Regarding Mr. Ishiba's rationale about deterrence being promoted by Japan's new defense policy)
It is quite a proper rationale. We are talking about the exercise of collective self-defense actions during peacetime in order to block military confrontation.

Mr. Kamiya:
In the world today with technologies developed and a new international situation, the United States, or any other country, can no longer stand alone to assure its security; we need to "help each other" for security purposes. In the postwar pacifism of Japan, people did not admit the need for armed forces or military power for the sake of maintaining peace. And that kind of reluctance still lingers on in Japan. The Abe administration is courageously taking actions one after another to handle these issues that the prime minister's predecessors have avoided. But they need to take a further step and insist that peace is not possible without armed forces.

Mr. Michishita:
The most realistic scenario (where Japan shall exercise its collective self-defense right) is the one during peacetime. Take a case for example where China imposes pressure on its neighbors or takes arbitrary actions based on its military power in the East China Sea and South China Sea, or just imagine that it occupies controversial islands by force in the South China Sea. It is important that not only those countries involved - the Philippines and Vietnam - but also Japan, the U.S., Australia and other nations work together in orchestrated efforts to block such actions.

In reality, it will not be that Japan and the Philippines will take military actions together over the Spratly Islands. Japan is rather likely to provide arms and equipment; it will support those Asian nations' capacity-building through joint training or drills so that they would be able to handle it on their own. But such actions during peacetime will be possible only when Japan is able to exercise the right of collective self-defense on solid legal ground. To make it happen, therefore, it will be most important to make the defense policy change.

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