TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday stood firm on his assertion that new security legislation permitting broader defense powers does not violate Japan's pacifist constitution. But the head of the top opposition party warned that its ambiguous rules regarding the use of force could lead to future abuses.
Sparring with Abe in parliament, Democratic Party of Japan leader Katsuya Okada challenged the prime minister to justify his cabinet's reinterpretation of Japan's pacifist constitution to allow the country to defend an ally under attack.
"The era when a country could protect itself alone is over," Abe said. "We won't close our eyes to the international situation and abandon our responsibility to protect our people."
He cited the 1959 "Sunakawa case," in which Japan's Supreme Court ruled that the country may take self-defense measures when its existence is at risk. "What is included in these necessary self-defense measures must be decided by looking at the international situation of the time," Abe argued.
Okada pressed Abe to explain what might qualify as an "existential threat," the standard that must be met to justify the use of force to defend allies. He called the idea "abstract" and said it can be interpreted broadly. To illustrate the point, he brought up minesweeping in the Strait of Hormuz, which Abe has used as an example in which invoking the right to collective self-defense is justified, and asked whether there has been any changes in the security situation there.
The prime minister did not offer specific examples of an existential threat, saying no foreign leaders disclose all the details of their policies. Okada blasted this vague response, contending that the new laws would give carte blanche to future cabinets to make arbitrary decisions on the use of force. He sees little grounds to reverse a prior government opinion issued in 1972 that concluded exercising the right to collective self-defense was unconstitutional.
Abe attacked the DPJ as weak, pointing out it had offered no alternative proposals. "I can't help but conclude you have no sense of responsibility about the country's safety," he said.
The DPJ sees Abe's push to expand defense powers as unacceptable, but Okada has not completely ruled out the possibility of Japan invoking the right to collective self-defense in the future, a stance aimed at appeasing the party's conservative wing. He contended during the debate that expanding existing laws would be enough to handle any emergencies close to Japan. Allowing collective self-defense, as the legislative package would, is "unnecessary," he said.