For many years, the Japanese government has taken the position that as a sovereign state Japan naturally has the right of collective self-defense under international law, but that the Constitution of Japan prohibits the exercise of that right. On July 1, however, Abe Shinzo’s cabinet made the important decision to change this constitutional interpretation. The cabinet decision says that if an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan threatens Japan’s security, Japan’s limited exercise of the right of collective self-defense will not violate Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan. A document titled “Cabinet Decision on Development of Seamless Security Legislation to Ensure Japan’s Survival and Protect its People” [http://japan.kantei.go.jp/96_abe/decisions/2014/__icsFiles/afieldfile/2014/07/03/anpohosei_eng.pdf] describes the condition for Japan’s exercise of the right of collective self-defense as follows:
. . . not only when an armed attack against Japan occurs but also when an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs and as a result threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, and when there is no other appropriate means available to repel the attack and ensure Japan’s survival and protect its people, use of force to the minimum extent necessary should be interpreted to be permitted under the Constitution as measures for self-defense . . .
The exercise of the right of collective self-defense is constitutional only if that right is exercised to the minimum extent necessary in case of an armed attack against a foreign country in a close relationship with Japan that threatens Japan. This is the main point of the Abe administration’s change in traditional constitutional interpretation. “The minimum extent necessary for self-defense” has been a basic concept in Japan’s defense policy since the end of World War II. Japan is not permitted to use force unless this condition is met, even if it is part of the United Nations’ collective security measures. This is the stance of the Abe administration. At a press conference held immediately after the announcement of the cabinet decision [http://japan.kantei.go.jp/96_abe/statement/201407/0701kaiken.html], Abe explains:
It still remains the case that the SDF will never participate in such warfare as the Gulf War or the Iraq War in the past.
The prime minister has pledged that he will solidify the path that Japan has followed as a peace-loving nation since the end of the war, saying:
The horrors of war must never be repeated. Bearing in mind feelings of deep remorse, Japan has consistently followed the path of a peace-loving nation for over nearly seventy years since the end of World War II.
The course Japan has taken as a peace-loving nation will remain unchanged. Rather, Japan will continue these steps to further consolidate that position. It is precisely our determination towards that end that permeates today’s Cabinet Decision.
Japanese media called the cabinet decision on July 1 a historic change in Japan’s security policy. In fact, however, the exercise of the right of collective self-defense under the cabinet decision has to be very limited under strict conditions. Mainstream Japanese security experts therefore consider that any actual change in Japan’s security policy and the expansion of the roles and missions of the Japanese military (called Self-Defense Forces [SDF]) will be limited. The cabinet decision has been made to allow Abe to realize his policy of “Proactive Contribution to Peace based on the principle of international cooperation.”
This policy is not intended to do away with postwar Japanese pacifism. The word “pacifism” is not included in the English expression “policy of Proactive Contribution to Peace,” but Abe’s expression sekkyoku-tekiheiwa-shugi in Japanese implies positive pacifism. Sekkyoku-teki literally translated means “proactive” and heiwa-sugi literally translated means “pacifism.”
Japanese public opinion has, however, not been very supportive of the decision. An urgent opinion poll conducted on July 2 and 3 by the Yomiuri shimbun, a national daily newspaper with Japan’s largest circulation (9.25 million in July 2014), said that the approval rating for the Abe administration was 48%, down 9 percentage points from 57% in the previous opinion poll in May. The disapproval rating was 40% (31% in May’s survey). In the Yomiuri shimbun’s opinion poll, the Abe administration’s approval rating fell below 50% for the first time since the administration took office in December 2012. In the poll, 51% did not support Japan’s limited exercise of its right of collective self-defense, against only 36% who did support it. Opinion polls in other media outlets showed similar results. A poll conducted on July 11 to 13 by NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai [Japan Broadcasting Corporation]), Japan’s semi-national public broadcasting organization, said that 38% supported the cabinet decision to approve the exercise of the right of collective self-defense, while 56% did not. The Abe cabinet was supported by 47% of respondents, down 5 percentage points from a poll in June. For NHK polls as well, this was the first time the approval rating for the Abe administration had fallen below 50%. (In the poll, 38% of respondents did not support the administration, up 6 percentage points from the previous month.)
It is however too early to conclude from these numbers that Japanese people reject Japan’s exercise of its right of collective self-defense. Voters have not fully formed their opinions yet about this issue. This is clear when we analyze the results not only of opinion polls conducted immediately after the cabinet decision on July 1 but also the results of polls for the longer term.
Abe’s approval rating, which declined in polls conducted by the media in July, recovered in polls in August and September. The Yomiuri shimbun (August 1 to 3) and NHK (August 8 to 10) showed that the approval rating for Abe’s cabinet was 51%, topping 50% again. In the urgent poll by the Yomiuri shimbun conducted immediately after the prime minister reshuffled his cabinet on September 3 (September 3 to 4), 64% of respondents supported Abe’s new cabinet, a 13-point jump from the August poll. In postwar Japan, the public has generally been tough on the government of the day. Except in periods immediately after they are formed, cabinets rarely see approval ratings above 50%. However, Abe’s approval rating has barely fallen below 50% in any opinion poll for a year and a half since he took office towards the end of December 2012 to the cabinet decision on collective self-defense. The approval rating declined sharply after the cabinet decision but quickly recovered to around and over 50% in polls conducted by a number of media organizations. This shows that Abe’s popularity has not declined.
Meanwhile, Japanese people do not seem to have solidified their attitude towards the issue of whether Japan should exercise the right of collective self-defense. This can be understood by looking at the results of polls conducted in May and June this year, before the cabinet decision.
An opinion poll conducted by the Asahi shimbun on May 24 and 25 showed that only 29% of respondents supported the change in constitutional interpretation to approve the exercise of the right of collective self-defense, which the prime minister sought. Exercising the right of collective self-defense was opposed by 55%. The results appear to suggest that the majority of voters in Japan are strongly opposed to Japan’s exercise of collective self-defense.
However, the result of a poll jointly conducted by the Sankei shimbun and the Fuji News Network (FNN) on May 17 and 18 gives a completely different impression. In this poll, 69.9% of respondents supported Japan’s exercise of the right of collective self-defense (10.5% of respondents answered, “The right should be able to be exercised in full scale,” and 59.4% answered, “The right should be able to be exercised to the minimum extent necessary”). The exercise of the right was opposed by 28.1%. A poll conducted by the Yomiuri shimbun on May 30 through June 1 shows similar results. Exercising the right of collective self-defense was supported by 71% of respondents (11% of respondents answered, “The right should be able to be exercised in full scale,” and 60% answered, “The right should be able to be exercised to the minimum extent necessary”) and was opposed by 24%.
In a monthly poll conducted by NHK on June 6 through 9, 26% of respondents answered, “Japan should be able to exercise its right of collective self-defense,” and the same percentage of respondents answered, “Japan should not be able to exercise its right of collective self-defense.” The largest percentage of respondents, 46%, answered, “I cannot say either way.” As for Abe’s approach to enabling Japan to exercise its right of collective self-defense by changing the government’s traditional constitutional interpretation instead of revising the constitution, 22% of respondents supported the approach, 33% were opposed, and 40% answered, “I cannot decide between the two.”
Why were the results of these polls so different? The different approaches polls adopted for setting up choices seem to be the biggest cause of difference. An article in the Asahi shimbun on May 14 said that of seven opinion polls conducted by major media companies from April to early May this year, in three polls which had only two options, whether the respondent supports or is opposed to Japan exercising its right of collective self-defense or not, the number of respondents who were opposed to the exercise of the right was larger than the number of respondents who supported it. However, in three polls which had three options—exercising the right in full scale should be allowed, exercising the right should be allowed to a limited extent or to the minimum extent necessary, and exercising the right should not be allowed—an overwhelming number of respondents answered, “Exercising the right should be allowed to a limited extent or to the minimum extent necessary.” (The remaining poll had four options, and the distribution of answers was more complicated.)
Professor Matsumoto Masao, head of the Social Survey Research Center of Saitama University, who analyzed the results of the opinion polls, concluded that Japanese voters still do not have unambiguous opinions about Japan’s exercise of its right of collective self-defense. His analysis is probably correct. Japanese people still feel a strong resistance to approving the roles of the military for peace. In that sense, Japanese opinions about security have not changed significantly. Many Japanese feel that they do not quite understand what Japan’s exercise of its right of collective self-defense means and how it will change Japan’s defense posture and external policy. This, I believe, is the main reason that Japanese people remain uncertain about Japan’s exercise of its right of collective self-defense.
However, there has been some change in Japanese public opinion. In the past, commentators and mass media on the left and liberal side almost always argued against Japanese government proposals for adopting more active security policies, stating that such policy would cause concern in neighboring countries. This opinion had considerable influence on Japanese voters and served as a brake on adoption of more active security policy by the Japanese government. Indeed, arguments of this type have been heard in the latest controversy over the exercise of the right of collective self-defense. However, they have obviously declined in number, and these opinions seem to have become less appealing to ordinary Japanese citizens.
The reason for this situation is obvious: increasingly self-assertive, aggressive conduct by China in recent years around the Senkaku Islands on the East China Sea and in the South China Sea that could be described as eccentric. Chinese fighters have repeatedly flown unusually close to Japanese Self-Defense Force aircraft engaged in normal reconnaissance operations near the Senkaku Islands. On May 24, fighters of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force flew within 30 meters and 50 meters of two SDF planes flying near the median line between Japan and China in the East China Sea. On June 11, Chinese military planes flew about only 30 meters away from SDF planes flying in international airspace over the East China Sea. Both were extremely dangerous actions that could have caused air accidents, but China illogically argues that the SDF planes approached their fighters. Chinese public vessels have also repeatedly intruded into Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands at a frequency of a few times each month.
Meanwhile, China unilaterally carried out offshore oil drilling in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands, over which both China and Vietnam claim territorial rights, from early May. During a standoff between vessels from both countries, Chinese ships repeatedly and intentionally rammed Vietnamese patrol boats and other ships, and the Vietnamese government released videos showing the collisions. In a press conference held on June 13, however, China said that there were 1,574 collisions, all caused by Vietnamese vessels.
At the summit meeting between Prime Minister Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama held in Tokyo in April, the two leaders agreed to oppose any attempt to change the status quo by force. In a joint statement issued after the summit, the two leaders declared that “Our two countries oppose any attempt to assert territorial or maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force.” At the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore from May 30 through June 1, Abe became the first prime minister of Japan to deliver a keynote address [http://japan.kantei.go.jp/96_abe/statement/201405/0530kichokoen.html]. In the address, the prime minister said, “[w]e . . . find ourselves facing the threat of . . . attempts to change the status quo through force or coercion,” and asked China to comply with international law without pointing a finger. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hegel singled out China and criticized it, using harsher words. He said that China was taking “destabilizing, unilateral actions” in the South China Sea. He also said that the United States “firmly oppose[s] any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert those [=territorial] claims.”
In response to these addresses, Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the General Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army, defiantly said, “China has never initiated disputes over territorial sovereignty and the delimitation of maritime boundary. China only takes countermeasures against others’ provocation.” In the question-and-answer session after his address, a number of participants asked Wang questions about the “nine-dash line.” (China maintains that almost all of the area enclosed by the line on the South China Sea is their territorial water.) In response to the questions, Wang said, “The governing rights of China in the South China Sea have been established through a long history of more than 2,000 years.” His statement caused a buzz on the floor.
China is sometimes referred to as “a nation of words.” Yet, Japanese people no longer find this sort of Chinese rhetoric persasive. A poll conducted jointly by the Sankei shimbun and the FNN on May 17 and 18 says that 91.8% of respondents were concerned that a situation similar to that which occurred near the Paracel Islands could occur in the East China Sea. This number indicates that Japanese people are concerned that China may actually attempt to change the status quo around Japan by force. This is why the argument that Japan should not exercise its right of collective self-defense so as not to create concern among its neighbors no longer resonates with the Japanese.
I suspect that readers who have read to this point may have a question. Opinion polls conducted in May and June this year indicated that many Japanese supported Japan’s exercise of its right of collective self-defense to a limited extent or to the minimum extent necessary. Moreover, an overwhelming majority of the Japanese are concerned about China’s threat. So why don’t the majority of the Japanese support the Abe administration’s cabinet decision on July 1, namely the decision to exercise the right of collective self-defense to a limited extent or to the minimum extent necessary?
The biggest reason is that many Japanese feel that the government’s explanation about the collective self-defense issue has been quite insufficient. How will Japan’s defense posture and external policy change if Japan starts to exercise its right of collective self-defense? What will remain unchanged in that case? For more than a year and a half since assuming office, Abe has been a leader who talks directly to the people about important policy issues to gain their understanding. He has explained to the people himself the adequacy and correctness of his policies on difficult issues about which there were a number of counterarguments, including Japan’s participation in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations and the consumption tax hike, and has consequently won public support. His approach has been well received by the people. However, many Japanese people seem to be dissatisfied with the adequacy of the prime minister’s explanation to them about the issue of the right of collective self-defense.
The dissatisfaction has been seen in the results of polls conducted from July 1 onward. In the Yomiuri shimbun’s poll in July, some of the results of which I described above, 81% of respondents answered that the government had not given the public an adequate explanation about the issue of the right of collective self-defense. As described above, in this poll, 51% of respondents answered that they did not support the cabinet decision, which said that Japan’s limited exercise of its right of collective self-defense is constitutional. The percentage of respondents who answered that the government’s explanation was inadequate was 30 percentage points higher. In the Yomiuri shimbun’s poll in August, the approval rating for the Abe administration topped 50% again, but the percentage of respondents who answered that the government’s explanation to the people about the issue of the right of collective self-defense was inadequate had risen to 85%.
One of the reasons that Abe has not been able to give a clear explanation about the change in the constitutional interpretation of the exercise of the right of collective self-defense, in contrast to his explanations about Japan’s participation in TPP negotiations and the consumption tax hike, is said to be his need to give consideration to New Komeito, the LDP’s ruling coalition partner. As a ruling coalition party, New Komeito was involved in the cabinet decision on July 1. However, New Komeito has emphasized that it is a “party of peace and welfare,” and a considerable number of its members are reluctant to endorse Japan’s taking a more proactive security posture relating to military, including the acceptance of exercising the right of collective self-defense.
The Abe administration urgently needs to promote public understanding of the right of collective self-defense. This issue has not ended with the government’s change in constitutional interpretation. For Japan to actually exercise its right of collective self-defense to the minimum extent necessary under the new constitutional interpretation, the government needs to enact the necessary laws and change the equipment and posture of the Self-Defense Forces. The Japanese and U.S. governments plan to revise the Guidelines for Defense Cooperation between the two countries, which prescribe the roles of the SDF and U.S. forces under the Japan-U.S. alliance, by the end of this year. It will be the first revision since 1997. The new guidelines will be based on the assumption that Japan will operate the SDF based on the new constitutional interpretation. It will be difficult to advance this process unless the government enhances public understanding of, and support for, the right of collective self-defense.
Will the prime minister be able to give the public a convincing explanation about the issue? The answer to this question will likely have a great impact on the future of Japan’s security and defense policy.
Translated from an original article in Japanese written for Discuss Japan. [September 2014]
Note: The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of the National Defense Academy of Japan or of Japan’s Ministry of Defense.