Relaxing of postwar pacifism allows aid to friendly nations.
TOKYO – Japan took a symbolically significant step toward playing a more active role in regional security Tuesday when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that his government would reinterpret the antiwar constitution to allow Japanese armed forces to come to the aid of friendly nations under attack.
The long-expected decision by Abe’s Cabinet changes a more than six-decades-old reading of the constitution, which had strictly limited Japan’s forces to acting solely in its own defense. The new interpretation, known as “collective self-defense,” will allow Japan to use its large and technologically advanced military in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, such as coming to the aid of a U.S. ship under fire or shooting down a ballistic missile aimed at the United States.
Abe had sought even broader leeway for his nation’s military but was forced to compromise after resistance from within his governing Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, a small Buddhist party. In a sign of how potentially divisive the change could be among voters, some 10,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the prime minister’s residence the previous evening to protest the change.
Still, most Japanese seemed to at least tentatively accept the change — a sign, analysts said, of the growing anxiety here over China’s rising military might and its increasingly forceful claims to disputed islands now controlled by Japan. They said these fears of China had made the public more willing to accept the more assertive security stance espoused by Abe, who has called for Japan to shed its postwar passivity and become a “normal” nation.
“The growing pressure from China has changed the political debate within Japan,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political expert at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. “For the first time, Japanese are finding that they have to start thinking realistically about defending their own country.”
The new policy cannot go into effect until at least this autumn as Parliament must still clear legal barriers to broader military action by revising more than a dozen existing laws, experts and lawmakers said.
However, with Abe’s governing coalition enjoying a comfortable majority in both houses, the change seems all but certain to become reality.
Still, even under the new policy, the Japanese military, called the Self-Defense Forces, will face strict limits that will allow it to act only when there is a “clear danger” to Japan or its people, and to use only “the minimum level of force necessary,” according to the text of the Cabinet decision.
Abe sought to allay opponents’ concerns by stating the new policy would not lead Japan down a slippery slope by dragging it into distant, U.S.-led wars. But he also said the new policy would forge closer ties with the United States, which stations 50,000 military personnel in Japan under a Cold War-era security treaty.