Japan Self-Defense Forces soldiers drive a PAC-3 missile unit into place at Asaka base, north of Tokyo. Photo: Reuters / Issei Kato

Ever since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power in 2012, and most recently in his address to the Diet on January 22, he has expressed his determination to revise Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution so that the Japanese military can be a more powerful armed force, one better suited to meeting 21st Century challenges.

Gaining greater flexibility and establishing a new set of rules for Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) may be a key mission for Abe, but experts say this will be a formidable task.

William Brooks, adjunct professor of Japan Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, told Asia Times via email that: “To update the Constitution, there is not only strong opposition from other parties in the Diet, the Liberal Democratic Party’s coalition partner, too, is cautious about tinkering with Article 9. Even some in the LDP are in no hurry to make the changes. The public remains negative about changing Article 9, according to (credible) polls. And on defense policy, the polls also show that the portion of the public against the introduction of long-range cruise missiles outweighs those in favor. Such a move is seen as violating Japan’s exclusively defense-oriented policy.”

Politics may complicate the constitutional steps that Abe must take, according to Garren Mulloy, Associate Professor of International Relations at Daito Bunka University in Saitama.

“Abe is still amazingly popular, despite scandals, but likely due to the poverty of opposition rather than innate policy support. His own party is unsure and several senior members this week called (for Abe) to ‘de-couple’ the constitutional reform issue from the upcoming elections.” said Mulloy via email. “Most revision versions seek to retain the current Article 9, while adding a sentence recognizing the Japan Self-Defense Forces as ‘Japan’s armed forces.’ This seems rather logically odd, but politically wise. Abolishing Article 9 would be unpopular, whereas amending it to reflect… illogical reality is more popular.”

Professor Narushige Michishita at the Tokyo-based National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies says cost concerns are a further issue. “Isolationists (who call themselves pacifists) think that Japan should stay away from difficult international security issues and maintain the luxury of not having to spend too much money on defense,” he said via email.

Moreover, the process of making Constitutional revision a reality is not well-defined.

Members of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces’ infantry unit stand to attention. Photo: Reuters / Kim Kyung-hoon

“A referendum is required to amend the Constitution, but the exact parameters of such a referendum are not stipulated in the Constitution. The outcome would very much depend on the precise language of the amendment, which itself would be subject to intense debate even before the referendum went to the public,” said Bates Gill, Professor of Asia-Pacific Security Studies at Macquarie University in Australia, via email. “This is a high bar, making it difficult to achieve a significant revision.”

Abe has been careful to preserve all options available as he proceeds.

“It is unclear what exactly Abe would have in mind, specifically, for a revised Article 9. He may seek a relatively modest revision, namely to state more explicitly the right of Japan to maintain self-defense forces,” said Gill. “It is probably still too difficult politically – both at home and abroad – for him to undertake a serious effort to revise Article 9.”

There are mixed perceptions among the public. These do not undermine Japanese military prowess, as long as actions are strictly defensive. But when it comes to shooting down DPRK missiles, intervening in crises overseas (such as evacuating Japanese civilians from Korea), countering or intercepting North Korean or Chinese vessels in disputed waters, or taking part in multinational peacekeeping operations, public sentiment cannot be relied upon.

Meanwhile, the upcoming Imperial abdication in 2019 could disturb Abe’s timetable as he seeks to revise Article 9 by 2020. “It creates a lot of government business that will have priority,” said Mulloy.

“It is unclear what exactly Abe would have in mind, specifically, for a revised Article 9. He may seek a relatively modest revision, namely to state more explicitly the right of Japan to maintain self-defense forces”

Moreover, reforms adopted in 2015 did not bring the desired degree of necessary clarity. Mulloy added: “2015 legal reforms were so confusing as the two scenarios the Japanese government posited for requiring new measures were minesweeping in the Gulf and overseas rescue (of Japanese nationals), two missions that were planned for, trained for, and undertaken in the 1990s. What is the imperative for reform? This really is not clear, but Abe won’t explicitly state scenarios involving [China or North Korea] for fear of provoking worsening relations or even conflict.”

Still, when it comes to collective self-defense (CSD), perhaps the most significant change resulting from the 2015 reforms is that the SDF can now defend its ally the US in a regional contingency, which it could not before.

Said Brooks: “So far, under the change in interpretation, the SDF has been refueling [and] escorting US military vessels and aircraft. CSD also allows SDF troops in a UN peacekeeping mission to come to the aid of other UN PKO troops or protect those civilians in its care, but the rush and rescue operation has yet to be tested since Japanese troops were removed from South Sudan last year, and there are no other missions elsewhere with Japanese SDF participating.”

Mulloy credits the approval of CSD-based reforms with changing the landscape. “It allowed for coalition policies and actions, while a revision to recognize the JSDF is symbolic. I can only imagine a further revision being related to rules of engagement, intelligence sharing, and other such issues,” said Mulloy.

The CSD rules also put Japan in a much better position to assist South Korea.

“Before the reinterpretation, the SDF could help South Korea only by providing non-combat intelligence, transport, replenishment, and other support to the US forces operating for the defense of South Korea,” in a war on the Korean Peninsula said Michishita. “After the reinterpretation, the SDF can provide combat support to the US forces operating in support of South Korea by shooting down North Korea’s ballistic missiles aimed at Hawaii or Guam, protecting US military assets operating for the defense of South Korea, and sweeping sea mines in the waters near North Korea.”

US President Donald Trump holds a trilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the sidelines of the Asean Summit in Manila on November 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Jonathan Ernst

The recent visit of Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull to Japan spotlighted a possible defense pact that China apparently views negatively. If approved, Australia and Japan would create a unique strategic partnership under this agreement.

An Article 9 revision might be made easier if and when this agreement takes effect.

“For the near-term, it is more likely Abe will continue to try to incrementally expand the interpretation of Article 9 to give the government greater flexibility and options in the face of threats from countries such as North Korea or China,” said Gill. “Establishing closer military-to-military relations with other key partners – such as Australia – is one way to do that.”

In his remarks to the Diet, Abe has revisited the idea of “an Asia Democratic Security Diamond” as part of a broader attempt to counter China in the Indian Ocean-Pacific region, according to Chinese experts who are now calling attention to what they detect as a new Japanese double-track policy. This places a greater emphasis on an expanded “QUAD” arrangement involving Australia, India, Japan and the US.

Brooks says the LDP will ready its proposals in March, “but the timetable after that is unclear.”

“And the impact of a change in Article 9 on the SDF’s role and missions remains unknown,” he said. “I have not seen anything yet from the think-tanks, but surely someone must be working on it. However, it is unlikely that the change (adding a clause explicitly mentioning the SDF) will be a sudden lurch away from the defensive mode that the first two clauses of Article 9 ensure.”

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