In Japan, a plan to expand military's powers faces growing resistance

Japan's ruling coalition came in for a shock recently as parliament mulled legislation pushed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to expand the powers of the nation's Self-Defense Forces.

The lawmakers had invited three constitutional scholars to address the lower house. One of them, Waseda University professor Yasuo Hasebe, was handpicked by the coalition, which was stunned when he said the legislation would "considerably damage the legal stability" of the nation and violate the country's post-World War II pacifist constitution.

The other two scholars agreed.

"It was a total disaster," said a coalition lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. "With all three scholars saying the bills are unconstitutional, the debate exploded."

The debacle in the Diet, Japan's parliament, in early June has only added to doubts about Abe's campaign to unshackle Japan's military under the doctrine of "collective self-defense." Polls show well over half the public oppose the effort, up significantly in recent months, despite attempts by Abe's administration to stifle criticism.

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, enacted in 1947 under U.S. supervision, declares that "the 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." In the seven decades since the end of World War II, the Self-Defense Forces have not been permitted to participate in overseas combat, even to come to the aid of the United States.

But last year, with China-Japan tensions on the rise, Abe said he wanted to reinterpret the constitution to allow Japan to defend its allies, particularly the United States, if his country's survival is at stake. His Liberal Democratic Party introduced bills to do so, naming them the Peace and Security Preservation Legislation.

The opposition has deemed the legislation the "War Bill." Debate started May 26 and was supposed to end June 24, but a vote has been pushed back to Sept. 27 — the longest extension in postwar history.

When Abe called snap parliamentary elections last year, he made the economy his focus.

"This election is about Abenomics," administration spokesman Yoshihide Suga told the press at the time, "not … collective self-defense."

But in postelection interviews, a jubilant Abe spoke little of financial matters and quite a bit about his desire to rid Japan of what he called the "U.S.-imposed constitution" and replace it with a new one based on the prewar imperial constitution.

"Constitutional reform has been the goal and dream of the LDP since it was created," Abe said.

Abe's focus on the constitution and defense has stirred substantial dissent.

The administration's public approval has dropped to 47.4%, and its disapproval rating has risen to 43%, up 5 percentage points from April, according to a poll by Kyodo News this month.

The parliamentary testimony from the legal scholars didn't help.

"When all three said the security bills are unconstitutional, it really changed the mood," said Koichi Nakano, a professor of Japanese politics at Sophia University.

The fallout continues. On a Sunday in mid-June, thousands of people rallied outside the Diet and in Tokyo's Shibuya district to protest the security bills.

In remarks to a house committee last week, Reiichi Miyazaki, a former director of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, a respected watchdog agency, concluded that Abe's bill would violate the constitution "and should be immediately withdrawn."

Nakano said Abe, who previously served as prime minister from fall 2006 to fall 2007, risked repeating past mistakes.

"Abe resigned in disgrace in 2007. When he tried to stage a comeback, his followers and advisors urged him to get a sexy economic policy that allows him to be marketable once again," Nakano said. "Once an election is over, his attention and political capital are spent on his pet issues of security policy reform and historical revisionism."

Abe is not without allies.

At a news conference Monday, Akira Momochi, a professor at Nihon University, argued that the United Nations Charter gives all nations the right to self-defense. "It is a given for international laws, and that supersedes national laws," he said.

But Abe has alienated some would-be allies who complain not only about his proposal but also about what they perceive as heavy-handed tactics. They have accused his party of trying to stifle news coverage of the issue.

"Abe is increasingly like a dictator," said Makoto Koga, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, in an interview in the monthly magazine Zaiten. "It's a dark and creepy regime."

Adelstein is a special correspondent.

Special correspondents Angela Erika Kubo and Louis Krauss in Tokyo and Times staff writer Julie Makinen in Beijing contributed to this report.

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