Japan’s government on Tuesday announced that it was reinterpreting the clause in its constitution preventing the country from going to war, a move that has drawn thousands of people to the streets of Tokyo to protest the shift in doctrine.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has long been seen as hawkish, taking firm stances against China and not shying away from Japan’s military past. While Article 9 of Japan’s constitution has always been read as only allowing Japan’s nascent military to act in self-defense, Abe’s cabinet declared on Tuesday that under its new reading that clause will allow Japan to aid an ally militarily even if Japan itself hasn’t been attacked.
“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 for this long-pacifist nation just a few years ago, such as coming to the aid of an American ship under fire, or shooting down a ballistic missile aimed at the United States,” the New York Times said describing the new doctrine.
Speaking at the Center for American Progress on Monday, Japanese ambassador to the U.S. Kenichiro Sasae pointed to North Korea as one of the primary reasons for the reinterpretation. “[T]he danger is on the rise,” Sasea said of the situation, adding that unless the two Koreas find some way to co-exist peacefully, Japan will not feel safe despite the protection of the U.S. and Japan’s mutual defense treaty. “This is one of the reasons why we are trying to modernize and update this alliance … and also our own security framework in which we are trying to go for collective defense,” he said. “This will help increase our deterrence. This is not meant to go to actual fighting, but it will give the message that you can’t have any funny ideas about what we’ll do.”
Written in the aftermath of World War II, with a heavy influence from the victorious Americans, Article 9 states that “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.” More controversial, the second clause reads that “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.”
Over the years, successive governments have taken a broad view of the second clause, allowing the maintenance of an ability to protect the island nation. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are among the most technologically advanced in the region, benefiting from a strong alliance with the United States, but technically are classified as part of the police force. Japanese forces have even taken part of international peacekeeping missions, though only serving in non-combat capacities. Most controversially, Japan sent a contingent of troops to Iraq to help stabilize the country after the U.S.-led invasion, but withdrew in 2006.
That has not sat well with all of Japan, however, as a day ahead of the announcement, thousands of people rallied against the change in the reading of the pacifist clause. While Sasae insisted on Monday that any changes will have to go to the Japanese parliament, protesters believed that any shift in the way Article 9 is read should be judged by the people. “Chanting ‘Don’t destroy the Constitution,’ ‘We absolutely oppose reinterpretation of the Constitution,’ and ‘We don’t need the right to collective self-defense,’ the protesters carried a wide array of signs, lights and banners to get their message across to the conservative leader,” the Japanese Times reports. “At one point, a group of apparent right-wing supporters showed up in a speaker truck to interfere with the protest but were shooed away by the police.”
While Monday’s protests were non-violent, over the weekend one man reportedly set himself on fire in opposition to the shift. “Witnesses said the man, seated on pedestrian bridge, used a megaphone to protest plans to end a ban on exercising ‘collective self-defense’,” according to Reuters. He then doused himself with gasoline from nearby containers and set himself ablaze; he was quickly hosed off and taken to the hospital.