War, Peace and the Law
FEB. 19, 2014
The International New York Times
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is getting dangerously close to altering a cornerstone of the national Constitution through his own reinterpretation rather than by formal amendment.
Mr. Abe wants to pass a law allowing the Japanese military to act offensively and in coordination with allies outside Japanese territory, even though it is accepted that the Constitution allows only a defensive role on Japanese territory. He has moved aggressively to bolster the military after years of cuts. And, like other nationalists, he rejects the pacifism exemplified by an article in the Constitution.
“The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes,” it states. Successive governments have agreed that a constitutional amendment would be required before the Japanese could take a broader role. The civil servants of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau in the Office of the Prime Minister, which checks the constitutionality of new laws to prevent the abuse of power, have agreed with this interpretation.
To help push the bureau to reverse that position, Mr. Abe broke normal procedure in August and appointed as the agency’s chief an outsider, Ichiro Komatsu, a Foreign Ministry official sympathetic to the idea of collective defense. A group of experts picked by Mr. Abe is expected to back him up when an opinion on the matter is released in April. In Parliament recently, Mr. Abe implied that the people could pass judgment on him in the next election, but that is an erroneous view of constitutionalism. He could, of course, move to amend the Constitution. That he finds the process too cumbersome or unpopular is no reason for him to defy the rule of law.
If Mr. Abe were to persist in forcing his view on the nation, the Supreme Court, which has long abstained from taking a position on the Constitution’s pacifist clause, should reject his interpretation and make clear that no leader can rewrite the Constitution by personal will.
A version of this editorial appears in print on February 20, 2014, in The International New York Times. Order Reprints|Today's Paper|Subscribe