Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.05.20

Tokyo's Maturing Democracy

JBpress on May 16, 2014

Is Abe's constitutional reinterpretation of the right to collective self-defense a commonsensical legal progression for Japan or a destructive crisis for its "peace constitution"? Although the recent series of heated domestic debates may be too technical and complicated for them to comprehend, the silent majority of Japanese have not missed the essence of the issue.

For the past several decades, Japan's executive branch, under whichever party, has maintained that Japan has the right to collective self-defense under the UN Charter but that she cannot exercise it domestically due to the limits imposed by Article 9 of the constitution, which has been interpreted to prohibit the use of force to settle international disputes.

Yesterday however, an advisory panel to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe submitted its report recommending that Japan lift its interpretational ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense. Tokyo's liberal media, jurists and political activists all harshly criticized the move. It is also likely that the Chinese and Koreans will shout out a warning against Japan's new "militarism."

Abe officially explained his plan for the constitutional reinterpretation in a news conference after receiving the panel's recommendations. He instructed that this issue is to be reviewed inside the coalition government, while referring to some conditions for actually exercising the right: if a close ally of Japan is under attack; if a grave threat to the nation's security would exist if force is not used; and if another country under attack would specifically ask Japan to counterattack.

Despite such restrictions, Japan's liberal media, which leans towards post-WWII leftist pacifism, did not hide their outrage over the constitutional reinterpretation. Their headlines read: Abe Emasculates the Supreme Law for National Security Reasons; Reinterpretation Destroys Constitution; and Concerns about Limitless Dispatch of Self Defense Forces (SDF).

Results of polls depend on who does the survey and how. Opinion polls by conservative media asking a "multiple choice" question tend to show more support for the reinterpretation. Polls by neutral or liberal media, on the other hand, which simply asked a "yes-or-no" question about the reinterpretation, are more likely to indicate much less support for Abe.

Despite the political frenzy, the silent majority of Japanese are much more cool-headed than those vocal activists. The recent results of a number of opinion surveys seem to indicate that ordinary Japanese do not believe that the constitutional reinterpretation would destroy the constitution and lead to militarism as some liberals or left-wingers claim.

By the same token, ordinary people do not support exercising the full-fledged right to collective self-defense, as some conservatives might wish, and prefer the right to be exercised at the minimum necessary level. In a nutshell, the silent majority of Japanese support a limited reinterpretation with restrictions on the scope of SDF operations, period.

Most important of all, Japan is a democracy. There are three branches of the government. The executive branch executes day-to-day policies and, if there is anything wrong, the built-in mechanism of checks-and-balances ultimately works. The prime minister depends on the majority support of the Diet and the judiciary will have a final say on constitutional interpretations.

This is what democracy is all about. The recent heated political debate in Tokyo indicates that the historical role of post-WWII Japan's utopian pacifism has ended and is finally leaving center stage. It also indicates that Japan's democracy is maturing and at last finding the right way to contribute, together with the US, to the peace and stability in the region.

External parties, whether in the West or the East, therefore must take a moment and see where this maturing democratic process in Japan goes. The last thing they should do is to overreact to extreme views, right or left, expressed in the on-going domestic legal and/or political debate. They are just unhealthy views which do not represent the Japanese silent majority.

Under international law every sovereign nation has the right to collective self-defense. Without it South Koreans could not conclude a mutual security treaty with the United States. China also exercised the right to defend North Korea from the United Nations Forces in Korea. The entire NATO system depends on each member state's right to collective self-defense.

Those are totally legal and internationally accepted, aren't they? Why then are concerns raised only about Japan's exercising the right to collective self-defense? Why isn't Japan's exercising the right peaceful and acceptable? This issue seems to be very simple. As long as Tokyo abides by the rules, leave it to Japan's maturing democracy.