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After a Televised Brawl, Japanese Lawmakers Vote to Allow Military to Fight Overseas

For the first time since the end of World War II, controversial legislation will allow for 'collective self-defense' and the defense of Japan's allies.
Photo by Yoshikazu Tsuno/Getty

There was high drama in Japan this week as a package of 11 bills made its way through the Upper House of the Diet. They represented an effort, backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to reinterpret Japan's constitution in order to free up the military to act in collective self-defense and the defense of Japan's allies.

Today, after failed last-ditch opposition efforts that included the triggering of a brawl in the Diet yesterday, the Diet voted to loosen restrictions on the ability of the country's military to fight overseas for the first time since World War II.


Video from yesterday's Upper House sessions showed opponents of the proposed national security bills piling on top of one another in an effort to physically block the Upper House special committee chairman, Yoshitada Konoike, from advancing the legislation.

"It's unfortunate that the bills had to be approved this way, but they are absolutely necessary to protect the lives and happiness of the people," Masahisa Sato, Liberal Democratic Party member, said after the raucous session.

Overnight and this morning, opposition parties moved forward with censure motions for Abe in the Upper House and no-confidence motions in the Lower House, which passed the proposed national security legislation in July. Tens of thousands of Japanese citizens protested during daily rallies over the past weeks while the legislation was considered; 13 people were arrested outside of the Diet in Tokyo on Wednesday.

Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party contend the legislation, which would change guidelines about the Japanese constitution's pacifist provisions, subsequently changing what the military is allowed to do, is needed to respond to the threats of today's world, including China's growing military capability.

In both the East China Sea and the South China Sea, Japan has found itself at odds with Chinese actions. Just this week, China's commander of the People's Liberation Army Navy's North Sea Fleet, Admiral Yuan Yubai, declared at a London conference that "the South China Sea, as the name indicates, is a sea area that belongs to China."


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Yuan's remarks followed those of Vice Admiral Umio Otsuka, president of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces' command and staff college, who noted that "a certain state actor's" actions in the Western Pacific were putting the rule of law at risk. Citing conflicting claims over the Spratly Islands and other South China Sea territorial disputes, Otsuka said he was worried that the South China Sea was in danger of changing from an "ocean of peace" into an "ocean of war."

In the East China Sea, Japan and China are at odds over sovereignty and resource exploration. China has moved forward with gas field development there, prompting objections this week from Tokyo that China's activities violate agreements for joint development of the resources. As with the proposed national security legislation, Japan is expanding its options and enhancing relationships around the region in response to China's assertiveness; earlier this year, Japan and the Philippines held joint military exercises for the first time, and Japan's strategic partnership with Vietnam has been lubricated by a common view that China is looking to "change the status quo" in the Asia-Pacific, especially in the South China Sea.

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Any of these issues would pose serious foreign policy and security challenges under normal circumstances. However, Japan's 20th century history makes that already-difficult challenge even more complex. The current Constitution of Japan — adopted on May 3, 1947 under post-World War II Allied occupation — features text renouncing war and the maintenance of a proper military. Article 9 in particular says:


Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

This is the bit of the constitution causing all the ruckus. As World War recedes further into the past, Japan's people and leaders have revisited the intent and practicality of the language. To date, the constitution has never been amended; it may only be amended by two-thirds supermajorities in both houses of the Diet, plus a simple majority in a public referendum. But a legal consensus in the country has developed that views the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) as an extremely militarized extension of the national police.

Since World War II, Japan has distinguished itself with its extensive humanitarian contributions and participation in international peacekeeping missions. It has sent personnel to 13 UN peacekeeping operations, five international humanitarian relief operations, and nine international election observation operations, and has made 27 in-kind contributions to further UN and UN-related relief efforts. In 2013, Japan provided $1.1 billion for global humanitarian emergencies, in addition to $1 billion for UN peacekeeping, making it the fourth largest government donor. The JSDF has also served in noncombat roles in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.


In July 2014, the Abe-led government approved a significant reinterpretation of Article 9, which allowed for the use of military force for "collective self-defense" and in the case of attack on allies. Howls of protest greeted these changes, both domestically and from abroad, as Japanese citizens criticized the substance of the change and the manner in which the legislation was approved — by way of a cabinet decision that bypassed parliament and circumvented the procedure for amending the constitution. Similar protests have greeted the past few weeks' legislative developments and Abe's approach.

"The conventional interpretation of Article 9 has taken root as a norm, and if the government wants to change it, it must do it fairly and squarely by amending the constitution to obtain public support," Shigeru Yamaguchi, retired chief justice of the Supreme Court of Japan, said.

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Japan's neighbors, especially China and South Korea, recalled World War II in their protests of the changes, while the United States strongly supported its ally's increased freedom of military action. The legacy of World War II is still very much a part of the regional conversation, particularly in recent months, as multiple nations commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of hostilities. Japanese industry, too, stands ready to expand and advocate for weapons exports as part of a "national strategy" that would follow on the passage of the national security legislation, according to Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation.

A majority of the Japanese population favors maintaining the pacifist traditions of its post-war constitution, and Abe this week acknowledged the dynamic, even as he moved forward with legislation that skirts public opinion.

"It is true that support (for the legislation) has not spread… but my determination for passage through this Diet session is unchanged," Abe said. "After the Diet passes the current security legislation, the understanding (of the people) will surely spread as time passes by."

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