Japan has claimed that it is preparing for war to preserve peace. After receiving the findings of a constitutional advisory panel on May 15, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a televised address to the nation outlining his vision for expanding the Japan Self-Defense Forces' global reach. To do so, Abe's government will seek to reinterpret the constitution — particularly Article Nine, which forbids Japan from maintaining armed forces or engaging in war — to allow for "collective self-defense," or the use of force in defense of other nations.
Neither the panel's report nor Abe's speech are unexpected. They are simply another step in the careful political and legislative path that Abe is following to take advantage of a rare moment of parliamentary strength to make changes that he and other advocates of military normalization have long desired. Because of Japan's militaristic past, Abe's mission is highly controversial, both at home and abroad. Abe's Cabinet will have to decide how to proceed, and relevant legislation will have to be debated and approved by the Japanese Diet. While the entire process may not wrap up by the end of the year, it looks increasingly likely that Japan will move to allow collective self-defense to some degree in the near future.
On a fundamental level, Thursday's report shows that Japan is igniting a national debate about the nature of war and peace. The purpose of Japan's constitutional pacifism is to preserve peace, but what if preserving peace requires the threat or use of force? Should Article Nine be interpreted literally, as an absolute renunciation of the use of force and maintenance of arms, or should it be interpreted more loosely as an imperfect articulation of Japan's desire to preserve peace? Abe's legal advisers argue that constitutional interpretations have evolved over the past several decades, and that now is the time for further evolution. They have come down decisively in favor of the belief that the constitution's pacifist principle is an end rather than a means — in other words, an exclusively nonviolent stance cannot adequately discourage war, but developing greater war-fighting capabilities can. From this perspective, emerging threats abroad will force Japan to develop new ways of countering those threats to preserve its end goal: peace.
Details of the new constitutional interpretation still need to be hashed out and will likely go through several iterations before the Diet will approve the new laws. The advisory panel argues that Japan can and should exercise its right to collective self-defense when under direct attack or when direct harm is done to the U.S.-Japan alliance, the international order or the rights of the Japanese people. These conditions seem as if they could be interpreted to justify action in almost any scenario, but a range of restrictions would still be in place to constrain Japanese military action. For example, Tokyo may need to receive a request for aid from a fellow nation and gain Diet approval before taking action.
It is still too early to say what the new rules will be and what will concretely change. One can argue that the question of formal constitutional interpretation is moot because of the way power works in reality. Would Japan really have refrained from using force if the United States was attacked? Would other countries really refrain from attacking the United States because Japan has pledged it would rise to the defense? In most wartime scenarios, Japan's national interests would likely have compelled emergency legislation or de facto action to respond to any scenarios that threatened the United States or Japan's immediate security. Ultimately, a new legally sanctioned interpretation of the constitution remains merely an interpretive matter. It can try to influence, but it cannot guarantee, any particular course of action in the real world.
On the other hand, adopting collective self-defense would be significant in several ways. First, legal changes could help shift domestic perceptions of the Japanese military's purpose and legitimacy. The Japanese have long held closely to the country's pseudo-pacifist doctrine, making it likely that any leader flouting the restrictions would face debilitating political backlash. But China's economic rise, military modernization and emerging naval power, as well as North Korea's missile program and nuclear tests, have helped to change the Japanese public's perception of external threats over the past two decades. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami have also helped frame the Japanese military as a force for good. Now, by carefully amending the laws surrounding the military's actions, Japanese leaders are encouraging the public to think of the military as an institution that can be trusted with wider responsibilities and powers while remaining under close political control. The debate will only intensify with the proposed legal changes, but the grounds of debate may shift toward those who favor a stronger military.
The legalization of collective self-defense also opens the door to a faster evolution of the Japanese military's role. Depending on what form the laws take, Japan could make formal alliances or other security arrangements with smaller powers that would benefit from its deterrent capability. The most likely path would be for Tokyo to try to fill gaps between the U.S.-Japan alliance and the United States' bilateral alliances with other nations friendly to Japan, particularly U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan could also seek to form stronger ties with European states, especially France and the United Kingdom, with whom Japan has a long history of alliances and naval interaction. Tokyo could also look to form closer security relations with powers outside the U.S. system. Vietnam — whose long-standing troubles with China are on the rise — would be a contender, though such an alliance would likely only take shape under more extreme circumstances, given its hostility toward China.
Thus in the short term, Japan's legal changes will mostly consist of altering the terms of the domestic debate, but they will later open up new options for decision-makers to respond to a wider range of eventualities. In particular, Japan's Self-Defense Forces could gain more freedom to intercept missiles aimed or launched at allies; search or apprehend vessels at sea that lend support to allies' enemies; help allies with military logistics such as refueling; engage in self-defense operations while on international peacekeeping missions; rescue foreign nationals; and respond to actions by small unidentified groups or "infringements" that fall short of an attack. Because of Tokyo's inherent institutional and technological advantages, these changes will spur serious reassessments of Japan by its neighbors and allies. China will view Japan's evolving posture as the newest and most consequential attempt at containment, made all the more threatening because Japan could become less susceptible to U.S. control. Japan has made no secret that China's growing military capabilities and desire to change the status quo are providing the most compelling reasons for its military normalization.
Meanwhile, the United States will welcome a Japan that is finally taking on a greater international security burden, but it will also recognize the risk that Japan's increasing influence over regional security decisions could pose to U.S. interests. As Japan takes on more responsibility in maintaining regional security, it will extend its own chains of security relationships, which could antagonize China and raise the risk of entangling the United States in conflicts that Washington would rather avoid.