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Debate on Security Bills in Final Stages

Sep. 16, 2015

Japanese Prime Minister Abe has long aimed to change national security policies. He says he wants to enhance the country’s defense as well as contribute more proactively to global peace.

Abe signaled his determination to tackle security-policy reform soon after taking over as prime minister in 2012. Since then, he’s been trying to find a way to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense without violating the Constitution.

Abe says the country can no longer defend its people without international cooperation. Collective self-defense was seen to be unconstitutional by past leaders, such as Yasuhiro Nakasone, who was Prime Minister in 1983. Last year, Abe and his cabinet decided to reinterpret the Constitution, and he told the people it was necessary because Japan’s security environment had grown more severe.

In May, Abe and his cabinet ministers submitted bills to the Lower House to give the new interpretation a legal basis. The move sparked vigorous debate between the ruling and opposition parties. Kazuo Shii, Chairperson of the Japanese Communist Party explained that "leaders of the opposition argued that the bills could be used to justify expanding Self Defense Forces activities without limit."

Abe tried to downplay their concerns, saying the activities of the SDF would be limited by strict new conditions. Abe said that "the government believes that sending armed units to foreign territories with the intention of using force exceeds the minimum-extent-necessary test for self-defense. So that is not allowed by the Constitution."

The discussion became even more heated when three experts offered their views in the Diet, all saying they believe the legislation would be unconstitutional.

Opposition lawmakers called the deliberations insufficient; with some claiming the proposed legislation would be unconstitutional.

At the Lower House plenary session, most opposition lawmakers walked out in a show of protest. The governing coalition has a two-thirds majority in the chamber, so the bills passed the Lower House and went on to the upper chamber.

The bills provoked a strong reaction among the public. Protesters have gathered around the Diet, carrying placards with messages, such as "Defend the Constitution" and "We won't let any children be killed".

Fierce debate has continued in the Diet, but the showdown over Abe's proposed security policy is nearing its conclusion.

As government aims to put the security bills to a vote in the Upper House, the people's support for the proposed legislation has not increased. A recent NHK opinion poll shows 45% of respondents oppose the ruling coalition's plan. The poll also shows that 58% think there has not been enough debate in the Diet.

Students have been staging protests against the bills through the country. One of them is Aki Okuda, a senior member of SEALDs, a student group calling for action to oppose the bills. "I think themes that have been discussed in the Diet are our own issues," he says. "I would say 'Can we overlook this kind of situation?' People realized that we can raise our voices. The protest movement has been spreading."

Another protestor who identified himself as the father of two daughters said "the most vulnerable people, such as children, are sacrificed in a war. I cannot accept a society in which children feel sad."

Some of the protestors were taking to the streets for the first time to show their position. "I feel a sense of unity at a rally," one protestor said. "And I'm convinced the bills should not be passed. My consciousness has changed."

In front of the Diet building, people ranging from young students to older demonstrators have been letting their voices be heard day and night.

Senior correspondent Yoi Tateiwa joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Beppu: The security legislation consists of eleven bills. One would create a new law, and the other ten would amend existing laws.

Tateiwa: Among this package of bills, we would like to focus on two themes that we think are particularly important. The first is about the right to collective self-defense, a right that Japan would be able to exercise if the bills become law. For years, government leaders have recognized that Japan has the right to collective self-defense, but the Constitution doesn't allow it to be acted upon. I asked two experts on this issue. Kunihiko Miyake, a former diplomat who supports the bills, had this to say.

Miyake: Collective self-defense is a concept stipulated in the United Nations charter, and every single member of the United Nations is entitled to exercise the right to individual, as well as collective, self-defense. So, it is a pretty natural thing to do for each member of the United Nations. Now things are getting more and more unstable. Look at the situation in Ukraine, or in the Middle East, or the South China Sea. They are all attempts to change the status quo by force. That’s something we are witnessing these days and, unfortunately, the world is getting more and more unstable. In order to cope with that kind of situation, we have to be able to deter whatever attempts by non-peaceful acts.

Tateiwa: I also spoke with Kyoji Yanagisawa, a former Japanese Defense Ministry official. This is what he had to say.

Yanagisawa: Abe's government is trying to enact the bills by arguing the national security situation is increasingly strained, and threats from China and North Korea can't be ignored any more. But let me talk from my 40 years of experience as a defense ministry official. If the threat is that Japan could come under attack, that's a matter of individual defense for our country, not collective self-defense. The SDF has built up experience in this respect, with cooperation from the police and the Coast Guard. I was involved in such tasks myself. I don't understand why the Abe administration says the way Japan has dealt with the security situation no longer works.

Shibuya: Let's look at the second issue of the bills, the SDF's activities overseas.

Tateiwa: The bills would broaden the operations of the Self-Defense Forces in peacekeeping operations overseas. Until now, there have been strict limits on members of the SDF firing weapons. If the bills are enacted, members of the SDF will have fewer restrictions on using their weapons. Here again, the two experts I spoke with were divided. Here is what Professor Kunihiko Miyake had to say.

Miyake: The use of weapons by self-defense forces officers would not change the situation. When civilians are in danger, it is the other side, the terrorists or other armed forces which took the initiative to attack. And in that case, that is an illegal violation of international law. Why do we have to accept it? We have to respond. We have to protect those people and we have to protect ourselves. They are using forces to attack us. So why can't we use weapons to respond? This is only for self-defense, and protection of civilians and NGO workers. Nothing more than that. We are not going to war.

Tateiwa: And here is the opinion of the former Japanese Defense Ministry official Kyoji Yanagisawa.

Yanagisawa: Protecting foreign troops and citizens, maintaining security, and abolishing the notion of known combat zones, all of these things would surely make it more dangerous for the Self Defense Forces, and force them to fire weapons. If they do, their enemies would naturally fight back. So the SDF would enter a new realm. They would be completely different from what the Japanese public has long believed they are. But this issue has never been debated in the Diet. I think it is very irrational.

Beppu: There is another point worth discussing. The bills would allow the SDF to provide logistics support to foreign forces in some circumstances. That is another issue that is dividing many people.

Tateiwa: That's right. And those who support the bills think it's essential that the SDF support foreign forces, otherwise they might think Japan is being selfish. On the other hand, those who are against the legislation, worry that simply providing logistics support could be considered as an act of war, and could make Japan the target of retaliation.

Beppu: The two experts seem to be deeply divided on the bills, and the same is true of public opinion. That has posed problems for the government. A recent NHK opinion poll found that most respondents think there has not been enough debate in the Diet. And asked whether people supported the government's plan to pass the bills into law during the current Diet session, almost half of them say they didn't think so. That's more than double the number of those who say they did.

Tateiwa: Thousands of people have been gathering in front of the Diet building to call for the bills to be scrapped. What is significant about the protests is that so many young students are taking part.

Shibuya: What about the two experts, what do they say about how the public views the legislation?

Tateiwa: Here is what they said.

Miyake: I think it is matter of time. The worst case scenario would be that when the crisis breaks out, somebody attacks us, then you will know the necessity of this legislation. But you don’t want to see that. The legislation is to prevent such a war. The legislation is to deter such a party to try to change the status quo by force. So therefore, it is the matter of time, but it may take some time, but people will eventually understand the necessity of the legislation as well as the inferior of a difficulty we have now without the new legislation.

Yanagisawa: The SDF hasn't killed anyone abroad in the past 60 years. That's why 90 percent of the Japanese public supports them. They never use the right to collective self-defense, never wage war overseas, and never kill people. That's the consensus of the Japanese public and that's the basis of their support. The public wants the government to explain how this will change under the new legislation, but it has failed to provide any explanation. That's why many people say they aren't convinced. The government apparently thinks the public may soon forget. I think passing the legislation with this assumption will lead to an unfortunate outcome for both the SDF and the public.

Tateiwa: What the two experts agree on is that this is a major turning point for Japan's security policies.