Constitutional reinterpretation of collective defense right not problematic
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed his willingness to review the government’s current constitutional interpretation to enable the country to exercise its right of collective self-defense.
The envisaged reinterpretation is undoubtedly necessary to ensure peace and security for the nation, and we throw our support afresh behind the prime minister’s thinking.
In Thursday’s House of Representatives Budget Committee session, Abe indicated his intention to seek Cabinet approval of a new constitutional interpretation of the right of collective self-defense after holding discussions with the ruling camp. The discussions will follow a government feasibility study of the reinterpretation focusing on the Cabinet Legislation Bureau and releasing a report by a government-appointed expert panel in April, he said. Abe also told the committee that his administration will subsequently address such tasks as revising the Self-Defense Forces Law.
Given such developments as advances in military technology and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the time has come when it is difficult for the country to fully ensure the integrity of its land and territorial waters single-handedly.
In light of such realities as China’s military buildup and maritime expansionism as well as the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles, it is urgent and essential that Japan beef up its alliance with the United States, as well as other aspects of international cooperation, through changes to the government’s interpretation of the Constitution.
In response to an interpellation in a Budget Committee session last week, Abe said: “I am the one who is ultimately responsible [for a Cabinet decision on constitutional reinterpretation]. I, not the head of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, am also the one who will be evaluated by the people [regarding the reinterpretation issue] in an election.” His remarks, however, elicited objections even from some members of his own Liberal Democratic Party.
Since the government’s interpretation of the supreme law is statutorily up to the judgment of the cabinet as a whole based on advice from the Legislation Bureau, the prime minister’s statement is not wrong. It is regrettable, however, that his remarks seem to have created the misunderstanding that the prime minister can change the constitutional interpretation on his own as long as he can win an electoral victory. The prime minister is urged to be more scrupulous about providing convincing explanations.
On the other hand, some parties including the Democratic Party of Japan are far off the mark in lambasting Abe’s acknowledgement of the exercise of Japan’s right of collective self-defense through a constitutional reinterpretation as being tantamount to violating “constitutionalism.”
Constitutionalism comprises two key elements: the guarantee of basic human rights and the separation of the three powers of state—executive, legislative and judicial. It places importance on governance in accordance with a constitution. Though a constitution places the government under constraints, it should not be considered the only thing that may be said about the top law.
The process through which the cabinet comes up with a new interpretation of the Constitution, the Diet approves legislation endorsing the reinterpretation and the judiciary adjudicates the legislation’s constitutionality explicitly conforms to constitutionalism.
What the government is now considering is a change of constitutional interpretation for the sake of maintaining the nation’s peace and prosperity in the face of a fast-changing security environment by ensuring a degree of logical consistency with the past government views on the matter.
Yusuke Yokobatake, deputy director general of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, who has been said to be wary of altering constitutional interpretation, has said, “If the conclusion is reached that a reinterpretation of the Constitution should be deemed just and proper, it can no longer be said that no changes of interpretation are ever permissible.”
Changes of constitutional interpretation, as a matter of course, must not be allowed without limits. Should there be a danger of crossing such bounds, it would be more appropriate to revise the Constitution itself rather than its interpretation.
New Komeito, which has so far been reluctant to acknowledge exercise of the right of collective self-defense, has recently begun to indicate readiness to engage in discussions on the reinterpretation of the top law. Komeito Secretary General Yoshihisa Inoue has said on the record that his party does not “entirely oppose” discussing the issue.
To increase public understanding on the matter, the prime minister should advocate the Constitution’s reinterpretation as important and necessary with his head held high.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 21, 2014)