Photo/Illutration Prime Minister Fumio Kishida responds to a question on a bill to finance increased defense outlays during a Lower House plenary session in April. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The Kishida administration has dismissed calls for constitutional debate on its decision to give Japan the capability to strike enemy bases, both proponents and opponents of the major policy shift said.

At a closed-door government hearing of experts on Feb. 7 last year, Tetsuro Kuroe, who served as administrative vice defense minister until 2017, called for constitutional debate regarding the government’s plans to revise three national security documents.

Kuroe has told The Asahi Shimbun that Japan’s basic postwar policy of taking an exclusively defensive posture should be redefined to deal with the worsening security environment.

He said the change is necessary to leave no room for criticism that Japan cannot possess the enemy base strike capability.

The traditional definition of the policy, based on the pacifist Constitution, says that not only the exercise but also the possession of defense capabilities must be kept to a “minimum required.”

Kuroe said he made the proposal out of his conviction that Japan should equip itself with “necessary functions” although it should be restrained in exercising defense capabilities.

But his call for constitutional debate went unheeded.

A panel of experts met between September and November following a series of hearings over the first seven months of the year, but no constitutional scholars were invited.

The government said there is no need for constitutional debate because an attack on enemy bases is not necessarily a violation of the Constitution.

A senior official of the Cabinet Secretariat said the issue of constitutionality was settled back in 1956, when the Cabinet of Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama told the Diet that Japan is allowed to attack enemy bases because it is a “minimum required” for its self-defense.

The Cabinet Legislation Bureau, which is in charge of interpretations of the Constitution, was hardly involved in government discussions leading to the revisions of the three national security documents, including the National Security Strategy, in December.

Under the revisions, government officials have said Japan may strike enemy bases as soon as they start preparing for a missile attack against Japan.

Critics say such an attack could become a pre-emptive strike, which would violate international laws.

In the ordinary Diet session that opened in January, Kishida has come under attack over his arguments that possessing the enemy base strike capability, which the government calls “counterattack capability,” falls within Japan’s exclusively defensive posture and does not violate the Constitution.

Opposition lawmakers said the government is expanding the scope of what is allowed under the exclusively defensive posture without limits.

Kishida said that Japan, even when not attacked, can strike enemy bases that are targeting a country with close relations to Japan and creating a “survival crisis situation” that threatens Japan’s existence.

During a Lower House Budget Committee session on Jan. 30, Katsuya Okada, secretary-general of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, called on Kishida to present cases where Japan is allowed to attack enemy bases in a survival crisis situation.

“It would go beyond the exclusively defensive posture if Japan launched missiles into the soil of a country that the U.S. military is fighting against when Japan itself is not attacked,” Okada said. “The definition of a survival crisis situation itself is ambiguous.”

Kishida refused to cite specific scenarios, saying Japan cannot reveal its strategy.

The only thing that the prime minister disclosed during the course of Diet debate is that the government plans to purchase 400 U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles.

At a meeting of the Lower House Commission on the Constitution on March 9, Soichiro Okuno of the CDP proposed finding a consensus on “new limits” regarding the minimum level required for self-defense that is acceptable under war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.

Calls for constitutional debate on the enemy base strike capability are not limited to the opposition camp.

“I expected in-depth discussions on the relationship between the counterstrike capability and the exclusively defensive posture, but unfortunately the discussions failed to win the public’s understanding,” Shigeru Ishiba, former secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said at a meeting of the Lower House Commission on the Constitution on March 30.

“The Constitution has been all too ignored,” Makoto Koga, former head of the LDP’s Kishida faction, said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun. “The compatibility with the Constitution should be called into question if Japan is to possess missiles.”

Constitutional debate has not deepened partly because opposition parties have failed to exert as much pressure as they did over the new national security legislation in 2015.

In a policy adopted in December, the CDP recognized the need to possess long-range missiles, although it did not acknowledge the need to acquire the enemy base strike capability.

The party has had difficulties in adopting a unified national security policy because its lawmakers come from a wide political spectrum, from conservatives to liberals.

Other opposition parties, such as Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party) and the Democratic Party for the People, have not grilled the government on the issue.

While political debate stalls, voters have shown greater support for bolstering defense capabilities given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s increased maritime activities around Japan.

In a recent Asahi Shimbun survey, 52 percent of respondents approved of the acquisition of the enemy base strike capability, compared with the 40 percent who opposed.

“While it is in the nature of the government to try to break free from the restraints of the Constitution, which binds its activities, (acquiring the enemy base strike capability) goes beyond the exclusively defensive posture,” Masahiro Sakata, former director-general of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, said.

“In a normal situation, the issue calls for the Diet to look to the opinion of voters with a proposal to amend the Constitution.”