Shinzo Abe has taken what is perhaps the most controversial decision by a Japanese government since World War II. He has “reinterpreted” the country’s pacifist Constitution in order to allow its military to have a more assertive role. The decision means that Japan’s military, known as the Self-Defence Forces, can now engage in activities, such as aiding an ally in a conflict, that were prohibited by Article 9 of its post-war Constitution. The article says that Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes”. Even during his earlier term as prime minister, Mr Abe wanted to change this provision of the Constitution, written and imposed by the American army at the end of the war. He has given two reasons for effecting the “reinterpretation” this time. He wants Japan to assert itself as a “normal” country, freed from the restrictions imposed on it in the wake of its defeat in 1945. And, he wants a more assertive military in order to thwart security threats from China. Interestingly, the United States of America, which had once imposed the pacifist Constitution on Japan, has been prodding Tokyo to play a more active role in maintaining the region’s security.
However, Mr Abe has still a long way to go before he can change Article 9 of the Constitution. Such a change would require an approval by a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament and also by a referendum. Given his ruling coalition’s majority in Parliament and the anti-China sentiments that he has been exploiting, Mr Abe may be able to carry his way through. But opinion polls conducted since his decision show that nearly 50 per cent of the Japanese are opposed to it. Much stronger protests have come from China and South Korea, the two countries that were the worst victims of Japan’s wartime atrocities in its neighbourhood. Both these countries had been outraged by Mr Abe’s attempts to revise the history of the times, especially by his prevarications on Japan’s use of Korean women as “comfort women” during the war. Predictably, his “reinterpretation” of the Constitution has worsened tensions in a region already troubled by territorial disputes in the South and the East China Sea. Mr Abe must not push Japan into a new race for military supremacy in the region.