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Japan's Lower House Approves Changes To Military Powers


Now to Japan and the changing role of the armed services there, known officially as the Self-Defense Forces. For nearly 70 years, the Japanese Constitution has prevented the use of war as a means of settling international disputes. That's in Article nine, and it means Japan can only take up arms if Japan is attacked. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to change that, and the lower house of the Japanese Parliament, the Diet, has just passed legislation reinterpreting Article nine. Here to talk about this now is Sheila Smith. She's an expert on Japanese politics and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome to the program.

SHEILA SMITH: Thank you.

SIEGEL: How exactly does this new bill reinterpret Japan's constitution?

SMITH: Well, the prime minister last summer announced that his cabinet wanted to reinterpret the right of collective self-defense, which means that he wants to allow the Self-Defense Force, the Japanese military, to work alongside other militaries - the United States, first and foremost, but also potentially the Australians or others in the region - to allow them to operate jointly with these other militaries. Up until now, the governments for the last 5 decades have interpreted the Constitution to not allow the Japanese military to work in coalition or even with the United States beyond the mission of national self-defense.

SIEGEL: What's a hypothetical situation in which Japan, with this interpretation of its constitution, would act differently then it would act if the Constitution were to still be interpreted in the more pacifist way that it has been?

SMITH: It's an excellent question. It's the one that drives policy, and particularly the policy conversation between Washington and Tokyo. The Japanese military have not been allowed, for example, to use force on behalf of the United States military. Now, our military is committed to defend Japan, but the Japanese military cannot defend our carrier task force, for example, that may be out in the Pacific, defending the Japanese. So that's one piece - the reciprocity in the alliance.

The other is, of course, that there is a broader set of security concerns. There is a concern about sea lanes in the South China Sea. There's concerns about access to the free flow of oil from the Gulf of Hormuz. Most of this is maritime, so there's a concern that there could be a larger conflict in which there's a coalition response and Japan would be asked to be part of that coalition, and to date, it has not been allowed to do it.

SIEGEL: And Abe is doing this despite some pretty strong opposition in Japan to it. Why? Why is it so important to him?

SMITH: Well, the Constitution, of course, evokes a lot of deep emotions in Japan. Some people are adamantly against the idea that Article nine should be reinterpreted or revised. Others worry a little bit more about what Mr. Abe's ultimate ambitions are. He's fairly forthright in his idea that Japan should reemerge on the global stage. He's been very forceful in arguing that it's time for Japan to get over its postwar mentality. So some people worry about Mr. Abe himself and where he's taking the country. Others are still deeply concerned about their military and whether or not their government has adequate control over the actions of that military.

SIEGEL: Is there any doubt that this will actually become law?

SMITH: No, there's no doubt. The prime minister's party and coalition with Komeito has a two-thirds majority in the lower house, so procedurally, it has just passed the lower house. It will now move up to the upper house of Parliament where it will be deliberated for 60 days, at the end of which, they can say yes, and it's passed into law. If they say no, it goes back to the lower house. Either way, he's got a new set of laws.

SIEGEL: Why is the public reaction in Japan so fervent about the limited abilities of the military?

SMITH: Well, if you read a placards - and this has been going on now for over a week. When people take to the streets, it's no war; we don't want war; we don't want to start a war. They also say, we're tired of Abe politics, so that gets to the theme of Mr. Abe himself. But earlier in the deliberations, Mr. Abe's party called constitutional scholars to the Diet, and uniformly, all three of them said that his effort to reinterpret Article nine was really unconstitutional. So you've got a mass kind of anxiety here about the legal basis that he's trying to move policy forward.

SIEGEL: Imperial Japan notoriously invaded China and Korea. What's been the reaction from those countries or others in the region?

SMITH: Well, for over a year now, the South Korean government has expressed some concern about the U.S.-Japan dialogue on upgrading their alliance and their military cooperation. They're worried about Mr. Abe's intentions down the road. China, of course, does not like any effort to enhance either the alliance or Japan's own military capabilities. So both countries have officially critiqued Mr. Abe's efforts.

SIEGEL: Sheila Smith, thanks for talking with us today.

SMITH: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Sheila Smith is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics And A Rising China." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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