Regional territorial disputes beg questions on constitution
An advisory body on security recently issued a report to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Some of the recommendations therein are quite controversial.
They are likely to become still more controversial, since central to those recommendations is nothing short of a reinterpretation of Japan’s constitution—something that is opposed by some 51.3% of the public according to a recent Kyodo News poll.
Specifically, the panel focuses on Article 9, which critics say was forced on Japan by the Allied Occupiers at the end of the Pacific War. It states, “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes”.
Abe’s wish to reinterpret this article does not necessarily mean the administration is intent on waging war. Indeed, the panel members have gone to great lengths to stress this is not the case. Their concern, they say, is that Article 9 also denies Japan the right to collective defence.
This right of a country to go to the defence of an ally under attack is recognised under international law (Charter of the United Nations, Article 51). Responses to the same Kyodo poll mentioned above suggest that just under 50% of Japanese would prefer Japan did not exercise this right.
Supporters of the move to reinterpret the constitution say the time is right for a revision. Currently, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan obliges US forces to come to the defence of Japan.
However, the existing ban on collective defence means that Japanese forces are effectively prevented from assisting the US, unless the Japanese archipelago itself were to come under attack.
Opponents say this is too restrictive an interpretation and that an attack, say, on a US naval vessel in Japanese waters, would entitle the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force to engage. Both arguments remain untested.
Not surprisingly, Japan’s current stance is cause for concern to the country’s neighbours in the region, principally China and South Korea. Both countries are engaged in territorial disputes with Japan.
In the case of South Korea, the dispute centres on the Liancourt Rocks (known to the Japanese as Takeshima and to the Koreans as Dokdo) and on an island known to the Japanese as Tsushima and to the Koreans as Daemado.
Worryingly, the dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea—known as the Senkaku isles in Japan and Diaoyu in China—has captured international headlines of late. This is particularly concerning as China has been seen to flex its military muscle (recent events involving Vietnam bear witness to this) and has significantly increased its defence spending.
Add to this the uncertainty over what Pyongyang is considering next in its missile programme. Though much in North Korea remains shrouded in secrecy, it is already clear that the regime has the capacity to launch missiles that can overfly the Japanese archipelago.
Washington will be watching all this very carefully, aware that any conflict in the region among these nations will almost certainly result in the involvement of US forces.
It is against this background that Abe and his supporters are pressing for the controversial changes. Japan, they argue, cannot simply stand by and remain helpless in the event of a regional conflict; it must be able to assist its allies under the terms of the United Nations charter.
All of this is very disconcerting for Japan’s neighbours, who still remember the atrocities committed against them, and for which they claim the Japanese have never sufficiently atoned, despite a number of government-level apologies.
Recent arguments over the so-called “comfort women” and Abe’s insistence on visiting Yasukuni Shrine (where Japan’s war dead—including a number of convicted war criminals—are enshrined) have only added to the rising level of concern in the region.