Tokyo’s new ‘self-defence’ laws take effect, allowing Japan to fight in foreign wars

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 March, 2016, 12:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 March, 2016, 12:01am

Japan’s new security laws took effect on Tuesday, enabling its troops to fight overseas for the first time since the second world war in a landmark defence policy shift in a country with a war-renouncing constitution.

The reform enacted by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is intended to deal with the security environment Japan faces, such as China’s military assertiveness and North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. But it remains controversial among the public who fear the laws could erode Japan’s postwar pacifism.

The laws largely expand the role of the Self-Defence Forces overseas. The most notable change is that Japan is now allowed, in a limited manner, to exercise the right to collective self-defense – or coming to the aid of the United States and other friendly nations under armed attack even if Japan itself is not attacked.

Previous governments maintained the view that Japan has the right under international law, but cannot exercise it due to Article 9 of the Constitution that bans the use of force to settle international disputes.

Citing changes in the security environment, Abe’s Cabinet decided in July 2014 to reinterpret the Constitution and laid out three conditions to allow the exercise of the right: if a friendly nation is under attack which results in a threat to Japan’s survival; if there are no other appropriate means to repel the attack; and if the use of force is limited to the minimum extent necessary.

But the move aroused strong opposition among a significant portion of the public, including youths generally thought to have been politically apathetic, after constitutional scholars invited by both the ruling and opposition parties to testify before a Diet commission called the changes unconstitutional.

Critics have also been concerned about how the government will judge what constitutes a threat to Japan’s survival. During Diet deliberation last year, Abe only cited a few examples of the possible exercise of collective self-defense, such as mine-sweeping missions in the Strait of Hormuz or protecting US ships transporting Japanese citizens being evacuated from the Korean Peninsula in a crisis.

The laws have been under fire from major opposition parties, and their constitutionality is almost certain to become a main issue in the House of Councillors election this summer.

“I thought through what are the necessary self-defense measures to fulfil the [government’s] responsibility to protect the lives of Japanese people,” Abe told a parliamentary committee on Monday, underscoring that the laws will help strengthen Japan’s alliance with the United States and boost deterrence.

But the head of the main opposition Democratic Party, which was formed Sunday through the merger of two parties, said the laws should be scrapped.

“Prime Minister Abe changed the interpretation of the Constitution by force,” Katsuya Okada said during a street speech on Monday. “Is it OK to change the Constitution’s pacifism so easily?” he asked.

A Kyodo News poll conducted Saturday and Sunday found 49.9 per cent of respondents are not in favour of the laws, while 39 per cent view them in a positive light.

Under the new laws, enacted by the Diet last September, the SDF is allowed to provide logistical support to US and other foreign troops.

The SDF is also allowed greater scope to use arms while participating in UN peacekeeping operations, and to rescue either peacekeepers from other countries or UN staff under attack in areas other than those in which the SDF troops are deployed.

The government plans not to assign new missions to the SDF anytime soon, sources close to the matter have said, so as not to exacerbate public concern ahead of the upper house election.

The public has remained divided over the issue.

A Kyodo poll last June showed that 56.7 per cent of respondents said they view the security bills as unconstitutional.

However, a poll last month showed 47.0 per cent were against scrapping the security laws, compared with 38.1 per cent who said they should be scrapped.