Photo/IllutrationThe Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Izumo helicopter carrier (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A litany of news reports about the Self-Defense Forces has raised concerns about Japan’s commitment to the pacifist principles crystallized in war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.

The SDF’s attempts to conceal daily logs on overseas missions have eroded the foundation of civilian control over the SDF, a critical constitutional tenet.

An SDF officer’s verbal attack against a Diet member ominously harks back to an era when the military took control of power in Japan and pushed the nation toward a reckless war.

The government, meanwhile, is considering arming the SDF with highly aggressive weapons, such as aircraft carriers and long-range cruise missiles, which run counter to Japan’s long-held strictly defensive security policy.

New national security legislation that enables Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense is now in force, sharply expanding the scope of the SDF’s joint operations with U.S. forces.

WORRISOME IMPLICATIONS

Moreover, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is sticking to his agenda of revising the Constitution to codify the status of the SDF in Article 9.

Abe has proposed adding wording that confirms the “existence” of the SDF while retaining Paragraphs 1 and 2 of Article 9.

But the history of the Abe administration’s policy initiatives strongly suggests the amendment is an attempt to eviscerate the pacifist principles laid out in those two paragraphs.

An Asahi Shimbun survey conducted before Constitution Day, on May 3, showed that only 39 percent of voters support Abe’s proposal to change Article 9, while 53 percent oppose the amendment.

Historically, the Japanese government has consistently proclaimed the SDF to be constitutional, an argument widely accepted by the people.

Spending political energy on revising Article 9 is also questionable in terms of policy priorities.

Abe’s claim that the proposed revision will bring “no change” to the role and nature of the SDF should not be taken at face value.

Article 9, which declares Japan’s renunciation of war and prohibits the nation from maintaining armed forces, has imposed tight restrictions on the SDF’s operations and equipment. It also holds the government strictly accountable for its policy decisions concerning the SDF.

The proposed amendment is certain to ease these restrictions.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Constitutional Reform Promotion Headquarters has drafted a revision to Article 9 in line with Abe’s proposal. It would define the SDF as armed forces that will take “necessary self-defense measures.”

But this definition provides no clue on what the SDF can or cannot do.

Through a mere Cabinet decision, the Abe administration has opened the door to Japan’s involvement in collective self-defense, an action that had been ruled out by successive Cabinets.

If the SDF’s status is enshrined in the Constitution, its scope of operations and capabilities could gradually expand in such areas as support for U.S. military operations, overseas deployments and arms buildup, depending on decisions by the government.

LIMITS OF MILITARY-ORIENTED POLICY

If that happens, the pacifist tenets of Article 9 would become a dead letter. Japan’s postwar identity as a pacifist nation will change, and Japan could send a disturbing message to its neighbors that it no longer feels remorse for its wartime behavior.

Would such consequences serve Japan’s diplomatic and security interests?

The security situation in East Asia has reached a critical juncture.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, chairman of the country’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, recently crossed the Military Demarcation Line into South Korea and shook hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the first summit of the two nations in 11 years.

Preparations are now under way for the first-ever meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea.

Japan faces the question of what it needs to do to protect its peace and safety in response to the ongoing transformation of the security landscape in the region.

Japan will be severely tested on whether it has the political wisdom and ability to deal with the changing realities in laying out an effective long-term vision for its future position.

The Abe administration has been using North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs to build political momentum for its efforts to enhance Japan’s security alliance with the United States and amend Article 9.

The administration has been increasing Japan’s dependence on the bilateral alliance for its security while doing little to build mutual trust between Japan and its two key neighbors--South Korea and China.

This has caused Japan to fall behind in the trend toward a thaw in the Korean Peninsula.

When the United States announced a new Nuclear Posture Review calling for an expanded role of nuclear weapons in its defense policy, Japan’s foreign minister issued a statement welcoming Washington’s new policy, even though Japan is the only country that has suffered from a nuclear bomb attack.

The Abe administration’s security policy stance makes it impossible for Japan to take the initiative for denuclearization.

Military power alone cannot protect national security. Diplomatic efforts to create systems to maintain peace through dialogue and cooperation are also essential.

Japan needs to get actively involved in international efforts for regional peace and stability while striking a balance between its security alliance with the United States and diplomacy with its neighbors. In doing so, Japan should uphold the pacifist principles of Article 9 as the cornerstone of its foreign and security policy.

VISION BASED ON REALITY

Tanzan Ishibashi (1884-1973), an opinion leader and outspoken critic of the wartime militarist government who served as LDP president and briefly as prime minister after World War II, once warned about Japan’s military buildup.

“If (the government) pursues the policy of arms buildup, which consumes national power, to defend the nation’s independence and security, it will not only fail to achieve its security policy goals but also cause the nation to collapse,” Ishibashi wrote in an essay on national defense.

Although the times have changed, his argument is still relevant today.

Japanese society is facing formidable challenges posed by its shrinking and rapidly aging population, low birthrates and an unprecedented fiscal crunch.

These realities must not be ignored in thinking about Japan’s security policy.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been putting strong pressure on Japan to buy more U.S. weapons. As if responding to Trump’s call, a growing number of LDP lawmakers are pushing for a doubling of Japan’s 5-trillion-yen ($45.9 billion) defense budget.

Where will the money come from? The government is now struggling to find ways to finance swelling social security spending. And further declines in the number of children will make it difficult to even maintain the current size of the SDF.

Japan should develop a security policy that is firmly tethered to reality and not lopsidedly dependent on military power. The policy should also not go beyond the means of the country.

In this age of growing uncertainty about the future, the government should thrash out realistic and viable foreign and security policies that are solidly anchored by Article 9 as the nation’s unshakeable foundation.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 4