Recent changes in Japan’s security policies have been interpreted by the media as representing a scrapping of the country’s pacifist restrictions, leading it toward becoming a “normal” nation and acquiring a more assertive military. These changes include permitting the right to exercise collective self-defense, creating a National Security Council, relaxing a ban on exporting defense-related equipment and procuring new military assets. The changes are significant, but they do not represent a fundamental shift. Instead, they represent a pragmatic evolution in response to Japan’s increasingly dangerous neighborhood.
Consider first Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s effort to reinterpret Japan’s constitution. At issue is Japan’s right to exercise collective self-defense. Under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, Japan has that right, but Tokyo has consistently interpreted its constitution as not allowing the country to exercise it. Abe wants to reinterpret the constitution so that Japan can do so. The debate is ongoing, but since the prime minister has the authority to make this change, it will likely occur soon. Critics have erroneously attacked Abe’s plan as enabling Japanese forces to fight overseas, but this is not what Abe is seeking. Rather, Abe is pursuing the authority to respond in limited situations that include aiding U.S. forces under attack in open waters, shooting down missiles heading to the U.S., aiding foreign troops under attack during U.N.-sanctioned peacekeeping operations and providing rear-area support in such U.N. missions. In all of these cases, Japan would remain legally confined to reacting instead of acting. Importantly, the reinterpretation does not permit Japan to assume a more active military role in regional security.
Abe is also pushing to create a National Security Council (NSC). Currently, Japan has a nine-member Security Council in the Prime Minister’s Office that acts as an advisory body that informs the prime minister. But the body is ineffective because of its size and bureaucratic stove-piping. The prime minister receives nine streams of information that he has to consolidate, understanding that each ministry has a vested interest in protecting itself. This negatively affects the prime minister’s ability to rapidly make national security decisions. The NSC under discussion is designed to serve as a control tower for security issues. It will consist of three members besides the prime minister, and will be led by a national security adviser reporting directly to the prime minister. Importantly it will have its own support staff, thereby reducing the effects of bureaucratic stove-piping.