National security legislation that passed the Diet exactly five years ago changed the traditional government interpretation of the Constitution, which had been firmly upheld by successive Cabinets, and opened the door to Japan’s involvement in collective self-defense.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has promised to carry on the policy agenda of his predecessor Shinzo Abe, but it should not mean simply embracing this potentially unconstitutional legislation without revisiting it.
The legislation is the most prominent example of how the Abe administration undermined the rule of law during its seven years and eight months in power.
The administration replaced the commissioner of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, the watchdog of laws, with an individual who was willing to act in line with its policy and reinterpreted part of the Constitution at the stroke of a single Cabinet decision.
In the face of strong opposition from many constitutional experts, including several former Cabinet Legislation Bureau commissioners, and a wave of protests staged in front of the Diet building, the ruling coalition used its dominance of the legislature to railroad the package of bills only after deliberations during one ordinary Diet session in 2015.
There is good reason for the government to take all possible measures to protect the peace and safety of the nation in the increasingly risk-ridden security situation surrounding Japan.
But Abe’s approach rode roughshod over the principle of constitutionalism–that the authority of the government derives from and is limited by the Constitution. It also damaged the foundation of democratic principles, which oblige the government to engage in serious efforts to build consensus through careful and mature debate.
In a statement issued just before he left office, Abe described the national security legislation as a “major step forward.” He sang his own praises, saying that the Japan-U.S. security alliance became stronger than ever.
But enhancing the bilateral alliance is not everything. This defense strategy, which lopsidedly focuses on the alliance, is a “negative legacy” of the extended Abe administration and demands a serious reconsideration now that the leader has changed.
The national security legislation sharply expanded the discretion of the government with regard to overseas operations by the Self-Defense Forces. That has made it all the more important for the Diet to monitor SDF activities outside Japan closely and effectively.
But the Diet is incapable of performing this mission properly unless the government’s tendency to conceal inconvenient information is rectified, which was brought to the fore by a cover-up scandal concerning daily logs of SDF peacekeeping operations in South Sudan.
In addition, the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and its partner Komeito is now poised to start discussions on a proposal that could radically change Japan’s security policy.
It is considering giving the SDF military capabilities to attack enemy bases, which could veer the security policy away from the long-established principle of a strictly defensive stance.
This proposal was floated after the decision to abandon the government’s plan to deploy Aegis Ashore land-based missile defense systems. The government has already started considering the idea at the behest of the LDP.
In the statement he issued before leaving office, Abe said the proposal would not overstep the boundaries of the Constitution or international law, nor change the principle of the strictly defensive security policy.
But it is hard to take his words at face value. Abe himself said the government did not assume the possibility of striking enemy bases during Diet debate on the security legislation.
He called for making a decision on the proposal by the end of this year, but there is no need for the Suga administration to be bound by the timeframe for debate that had been set by the outgoing prime minister.
Japan can only contribute to regional stability by making serious diplomatic efforts to build relations based on mutual trust with its neighbors while maintaining a security policy solidly underpinned by its alliance with the United States.
With the conflict between the United States and China over global hegemony intensifying, Japan can ill-afford to lose sight of the role it should perform.