- Policy by Other Means:Collective Self-Defense and the Politics of Japan's Postwar Constitutional Reinterpretations
japan, security policy, u.s.-japan alliance, collective self-defense, japanese constitution
[End Page 139]
This article analyzes Japan's landmark cabinet decision reinterpreting the constitution to allow the limited exercise of collective self-defense (CSD) in both a historical and a contemporary context and assesses its implications for the conditions under which Japan may use military force.
In July 2014, a historic cabinet decision reinterpreted Article 9 of Japan's 1947 constitution to allow the use of force to aid an ally under attack, overturning 60 years of authoritative constitutional interpretations categorically prohibiting Japan's exercise of CSD. The decision was followed by a revision of the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines and landmark legislation intended to transform Japan's security policy. Yet the change is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Japan's self-imposed precondition for the use of force by the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) remains uniquely strict: an armed attack posing an existential threat to Japan's security. Nor is this the first case of a major reinterpretation of Article 9. Though its original wording remains untouched, the article's effective policy significance has changed repeatedly over 70 years in accordance with shifting domestic political winds and perceived strategic exigencies. Specific to post-2014 developments, understanding what changed and why—especially how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his allies' push for full exercise of CSD failed—elucidates the strategic, political, and normative factors shaping changes to Japan's security policy and the U.S.-Japan alliance.
• While Japan may now legally exercise "limited" collective self-defense, unique, self-imposed conditions appear so strict that the use of force in support of allies or partners outside a defense-of-Japan scenario seems unlikely.
• Security legislation in effect since 2016 opens up space for more expansive JSDF logistical support for U.S. military operations, bilateral planning, and exercises, as well as new authorities that somewhat resemble collective security or CSD operations in peacetime, including use of small arms during UN peacekeeping operations and protection of foreign militaries engaged in activities contributing to Japan's defense.
• Without formal constitutional revision (at a minimum), however, more ambitious efforts to fundamentally transform Article 9's interpretation or the scope of scenarios in which Japan can use force overseas are unlikely without major domestic political realignments. [End Page 140]
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...