TOKYO — Japan’s parliament enacted legislation early Sept. 19 aimed at expanding the role of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces overseas, despite strong protests from opposition lawmakers and voters against what marks a major shift in the country’s postwar security policy.
The legislation, which for the first time since World War II will enable Japanese troops to fight overseas, was passed at a House of Councillors plenary session with a vote of 148 to 90 after attempts by the opposition camp over two days to delay the final vote.
“This legislation is necessary to protect the citizens and their peaceful lives and will prevent (the outbreak of) wars,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters at his office after the bills were passed.
Abe vowed to continue explaining the security bills to the public “in good faith and with persistence.” Recent media polls show that a majority of the public oppose the legislation.
Aimed at boosting the SDF’s role abroad for a more robust alliance with the United States, the legislation will enable Japan to exercise, in a limited way, the right to collective self-defense, or coming to the aid of the United States and other friendly nations under armed attack, even if Japan itself is not attacked.
The bills were railroaded through an upper house panel Sept. 17 by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, the Komeito party, and three smaller parties.
Hours before the final vote, in last-ditch efforts to block the bills’ passage, opposition lawmakers filed a series of censure and no-confidence motions in the upper house against Abe and key members of the Japanese government and Diet.
All of the motions were rejected given the majorities held by the LDP and Komeito in both chambers of parliament.
The legislation comprises revisions to 10 existing security-related laws and a new permanent law designed to allow the SDF to provide logistical support to foreign militaries in international peacekeeping activities.
Unlike in July, when the bills were passed by the lower house amid an opposition walkout, the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan remained in the chamber and voted against the bills.
Earlier in the day, both a censure motion against Abe in the upper house and a no-confidence motion in the House of Representatives against Abe’s Cabinet were rejected.
Criticizing the rush to hold a vote on the bills at the upper house panel meeting, DPJ leader Katsuya Okada told a lower house session, “We absolutely cannot allow Prime
Minister Abe to be out of control. We urge (him) to step down immediately.”
Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii denounced the bills as violating the war-renouncing Article 9, saying, “The Abe administration failed to gain public consent (for the bills).”
Abe has said the legislation is needed amid an increasingly severe security environment facing Japan, citing China’s growing military assertiveness and North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.
Fierce political wrangling in parliament had continued after the bills were approved by the upper house panel on Sept. 17 in a meeting marred by jostling and shouting.
The government and ruling camp contend the bills’ passage through the panel was not forced, citing the three opposition parties’ support. The ruling bloc and three parties have agreed to ensure through Cabinet approval a greater role for the Diet in allowing SDF dispatches overseas as a way to put restraints on SDF operations.
Japan’s close ally, the United States, welcomes the legislation, as do many Southeast Asian nations amid China’s growing power.
China, however, expressed its support for Japanese opposition lawmakers and protesters.
“We hope that Japan listens to the righteous calls of its own people, learns from the lessons of history and sticks to the path of peaceful development,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular press briefing in Beijing on Sept. 18.
The debate on the bills — a sensitive and divisive issue for the public — focused on the question of constitutionality after scholars said in June they violate the country’s supreme law.
In the days leading up to the parliamentary vote, tens of thousands of voters including students and mothers rallied outside the Diet building. On Sept. 18, they again chanted for Abe to quit and the government to scrap the bills, while some held placards reading “No War” and “Do Not Destroy Article 9.”
Critics say the security policy shift from Japan’s postwar exclusively defense-oriented posture violates the Constitution and will drag Japan into U.S.-led wars around the world.
The new legislation will put into effect a landmark Cabinet decision in July last year that reinterpreted the Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense.
Previously, successive governments have interpreted the country’s supreme law to mean that Japan has the right to collective self-defense but cannot exercise it.
Abe has said Japan will not send troops overseas for combat action and will not support a preemptive attack. He has also said Japan, as a policy, will refrain from providing logistical support for a coalition of nations engaged in military attacks on Islamic State militants.
The right to collective self-defense can be exercised under three conditions — if a friendly nation is under attack which results in a threat to Japan’s survival, if there are no other appropriate means to repel the attack, and if the use of force is limited to the minimum extent necessary.
But critics are concerned about how the government will judge what constitutes a threat to Japan’s survival. Abe has only cited a few examples for exercising collective self-defense such as minesweeping missions in the Strait of Hormuz and protecting U.S. ships transporting Japanese citizens evacuating in contingencies.