TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged Tuesday that the bigger overseas role his government is seeking for Japan's Self-Defense Forces would entail some danger to service personnel, confronting a topic he had seemed to avoid.
"The legislation contains measures intended to minimize risks to service members," Abe told the Diet's lower house. "Even so, risks would remain."
Should the national security bills before the lower house become law, the SDF would take on far greater responsibilities, including supplying ammunition and other materiel to foreign militaries. Critics fear Japanese units could get caught in the crossfire.
These are risks that SDF members bear "to defend the public and our peaceful way of life," Abe said, adding that the legislation would reduce the dangers to the nation as a whole and its people.
Just last week, Abe argued there was "no connection" between a more expansive SDF mandate and risks to service members. Opposition lawmakers Tuesday accused the prime minister of contradicting himself.
Abe stressed that Japan would remain constitutionally banned from using military force on foreign territory because this would "generally exceed the minimum [use of force] needed for defense." But minesweeping, even in other countries' territorial waters, could meet three proposed criteria for engaging in collective self-defense, he argued.
"Politicians can't just wish for peace," Abe said of his push for a more forward defense posture. "They have to act boldly."
Tuesday marked the start of what likely will prove a stormy debate on the government's national security legislation. Opposition parties took aim at the proposed criteria for engaging in collective self-defense, or coming to the aid of allies under fire, which include the presence of a clear existential threat to Japan.
"What would the factual grounds be for judging whether our existence is being threatened?" pressed Yukio Edano, secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Japan.
The government will "make an objective, rational judgment based on the probability of the ravages of war spreading to our nation" as well as the severity of the threat, Abe replied, dodging the question somewhat.
Much of Tuesday's debate involved minesweeping. Kazumi Ota of the Japan Innovation Party sought Abe's basis for arguing such missions meet the three standards. Abe replied that minesweeping is "a passive, limited action" whose purpose is to ensure safe navigation.
The frequent use of minesweeping in the Strait of Hormuz as an example of collective self-defense creates the misunderstanding that any economic disruption would constitute an existential threat, said Tomomi Inada, a member of Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a former minister in his cabinet. Tankers ferrying Middle Eastern crude oil to Japan pass through that maritime choke point.
Abe insisted that "mere blows to our way of life or economy or shortages of everyday goods" would not meet the criteria for engaging in collective self-defense but that a severing of Japan's oil supply would.