Japan Data

Abe’s Moves Toward Collective Self-Defense


On July 1, 2014, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s cabinet adopted a resolution to reinterpret the Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense. What does this reinterpretation entail, and what are the security ramifications?

A Major Security and Foreign Policy Shift

In a landmark shift away from the nation’s traditional stance on national security and foreign policy, the cabinet of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō decided on July 1 to reinterpret Japan’s Constitution to allow for collective self-defense. Previously, the official government position was that the country could not engage in collective self-defense—meaning to take up arms in support of another member of the international community that comes under attack—based on Article 9 of the Constitution, which renounces “the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” The cabinet’s decision breaks with this interpretation, which had stood for most of the post–World War II era. The cabinet agreed on a reinterpretation that lays the groundwork for Japan to exercise this right following an agreement reached between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner New Kōmeitō.

The move comes in response to growing tensions in East Asia and a number of changes affecting Japan’s security. The government is looking to use the right of collective self-defense to retool the US-Japan security partnership guidelines; domestically, preparations are underway to bring the Self-Defense Forces Act and other legislation related to handling potential contingencies in line with the new interpretation.

The cabinet’s plan includes three conditions that allow Japan to exercise the right to self-defense within its constitutional constraints. The first is in a case where a nation with close ties to Japan comes under attack and the lives, freedom, and right of Japanese nationals to pursue happiness are clearly endangered. The second condition specifies that force may be used only if there is no other effective way to protect the lives of Japanese citizens. The final condition is the limitation of the use of force to the minimally required level. These standards open up the way for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, under certain conditions, to aid an allied nation that is under attack, even if Japan itself is not.

Abe: Japan Remains “Dedicated to Peace”

At a press conference held after the cabinet’s approval of the reinterpretation, Prime Minister Abe explained the significance of Japan’s need to exercise collective self-defense, while attempting to reassure a concerned public that Japan was not moving toward greater militarism. “Japan will not be involved in a war to protect another nation,” explained Abe. “The strengthened alliance between Japan and the United States will serve as a deterrent and ensure peace in the region. As before, Japan will remain a nation dedicated to peace.”

The national debate over collective self-defense has divided not only the general public, as was demonstrated by protests held throughout the country, but also the opinions of national and local leaders, the media, and scholars. Opposition groups decried the cabinet’s unilateral efforts to reinterpret Article 9 without deciding an issue of such national importance through a public referendum instead. Others voiced strong misgivings about Japan changing its long-held position on the use of military force strictly as a means of self-defense, arguing that reinterpreting the Constitution would make the country “capable of war.”

The prime minister sought to address these concerns by saying: “Japan will not use force for the purpose of protecting foreign countries. Let me assure you, there is no possibility that our country will be dragged into a war on foreign soil.”

The Main Points of Revision

  • In a situation where a close ally of Japan comes under attack from a foreign country, Japan reserves the right under the Constitution to use a minimum required level of force to protect Japanese citizens from clear threats to life, freedom, and the right to pursue happiness.
  • There are cases under international law that justify the use of collective self-defense.
  • When the US military is engaged in efforts to defend Japan, the Self-Defense Forces will be allowed to provide a greater level of support, such as supporting  US weaponry divisions.
  • The Self-Defense Forces will be allowed in certain situations to provide logistical support to foreign militaries in noncombat zones.

(Originally written in Japanese on July 1, 2014. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe during the July 1 special cabinet meeting. © Jiji Press Photo.)

government Liberal Democratic Party Abe Shinzō LDP collective self-defense constitution Komeito Article 9 reinterpretation