Academic journal article Asia Policy

Policy by Other Means: Collective Self-Defense and the Politics of Japan's Postwar Constitutional Reinterpretations

Academic journal article Asia Policy

Policy by Other Means: Collective Self-Defense and the Politics of Japan's Postwar Constitutional Reinterpretations

Article excerpt

On July 1, 2014, global headlines were awash with news of Japan's historic cabinet decision "reinterpreting" its never-revised 1947 constitution to allow the country for the first time to exercise collective self-defense (CSD)-the UN Charter-sanctioned right to use force to aid an ally under attack. This substantively unprecedented, controversial decision spearheaded by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe overturned 60 years of authoritative government interpretations forbidding the exercise of CSD on constitutional grounds. It sparked a political firestorm domestically, and its policy impact was swift: in April 2015, Tokyo and Washington rewrote the seminal document articulating the allies' respective responsibilities and procedures for operational coordination. In March 2016, landmark legislation intended to transform and "normalize" Japan's security posture and expand the roles and missions of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) came into effect.

The debate that was sparked by the Abe administration's push to enable Japan to exercise CSD without formally revising the constitution's famous Article 9 "peace clause" became a revealing focal point for the latest intense contestation of core issues permeating Japan's postwar domestic politics. These issues range from the legitimacy and appropriate role of Japan's de facto military and alliance with the United States to deeply sensitive domestic political issues concerning civil-military relations, Japan's democratic institutions, and even national identity. The political atmosphere was highly incendiary. Domestic and overseas criticism of Abe's allegedly unprecedented affront to Japan's democratic norms and constitutionalism was widespread, while warnings of resurgent Japanese "militarism" abounded and opposition parties disparaged bills codifying the reinterpretation in law as "war legislation" (senso hoan) that would inevitably trap young Japanese in foreign wars "on the far side of the world."1

This hyper-politicized and noisy context raises compelling questions about the cabinet decision's implications for contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy, the U.S.-Japan alliance, and Japan's role in regional and global politics: How were Japan's political leaders able to simply "reinterpret" Article 9 after the administration's original objective-formal constitutional revision-proved politically impossible? In rendering the exercise of CSD constitutional, how did Abe's cabinet succeed where its predecessors had failed? What explains the politically negotiated outcome: an approach and reinterpretation that went far enough to offend many critics but substantively fell far short of many CSD advocates' desired end state? Finally, in practical terms, how significant are the resulting policy changes? Do Abe's efforts, as some scholars suggest, provide evidence of a "radical" transformation of and fundamentally new trajectory for Japan's foreign and security policy?2 Given that Japan is the world's third-largest economy and a major U.S. ally geographically and geopolitically wedged between Washington and Beijing, the fundamental shift in its security posture alleged by many critics (and some proponents) would have significant ramifications for regional and global politics.

With the benefit of three years of hindsight, this study analyzes the politics behind the historic 2014 cabinet decision and the implications of the resulting allowance of limited CSD for the JSDF's use of force (buryoku koshi). Its approach is dispassionately analytical, seeking neither to endorse nor criticize any interpretation, tactic, or policy on normative grounds. The article is divided into the following sections:

* pp. 143-54 offer crucial historical context for Japan's decades-old domestic debate concerning the exercise of CSD. This section provides a baseline for the 2014 reinterpretation by examining the oft-forgotten postwar legacy of 70 years of shifting norms regarding Article 9's effective interpretation. …

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