TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's pledge to the U.S. to increase Japan's military contribution internationally is facing more questions about potential conflicts with the nation's pacifist constitution.
Opposition lawmakers demanded answers from key Cabinet members at a hearing Wednesday, after three prominent constitution experts — including one chosen by Abe's ruling party — unanimously told a parliamentary committee last week that legislation allowing Japanese troops to defend foreign militaries would violate the war-renouncing Article 9 of Japan's postwar constitution.
The development energized the opposition, adding to unease within the ruling party as public opinion polls show both opposition to Abe's security legislation and confusion about why it's needed.
It also raises questions about how far Japan can expand its military activities under its U.S.-drafted constitution, and whether it should be revised.
Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner Komei party still hope to pass the legislation by the end of the summer as Abe has promised to Washington, but they acknowledged that extending the current lawmaking session beyond June 24 is imminent.
"Obviously you drafted the legislation by manipulating the constitution to achieve your goals," Kiyomi Tsujimoto, a member of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, told the lower house committee. She and other opponents demand the legislation be withdrawn, alleging Abe's Cabinet stretched the interpretation of Article 9 too far to allow Japan's military's role beyond its constitutional limits.
The Cabinet reinterpreted the constitution last year to allow Japan to defend American troops or allies, outside Japan and its vicinity, a major change to its current policy.
The bills would remove geographic restrictions on where the military can operate, while allowing Japan to defend its allies, not just itself. The legislation would also enhance the U.S.-Japan security alliance, but Abe has denied opponents' fears that it would increase the chance of Japan being drawn into a U.S.-led war. Instead, he said, the legislation would increase deterrence.
Defense Secretary Gen Nakatani defended the legislation as constitutional but said the security environment surrounding Japan has changed and its self-defense-only principle is insufficient.
Masataka Komura, head of LDP's national security panel, said reinterpreting the war-renouncing article of the constitution was the only practical way for Japan to maintain peace and stability. He said most experts called Japan's Self-Defense Force unconstitutional when it was founded 60 years ago. The ruling LDP has long hoped to revise the constitution which it calls U.S.-imposed and outdated, but hurdles are high and lack public support.
Abe also focuses on Japan's possible security contribution to the U.S. in the disputed South China Sea. Nakatani also stressed the need to protect Japanese tankers bringing oil from the Middle East to the resource-poor country.
Critics say what constitutes the right to use "collective self-defense" or when troops could be sent on a peace mission overseas is too vague.
At a lower house constitution panel last Thursday, Yasuo Hasebe, one of Japan's most respected constitution expert at Waseda University invited by Abe's party, says the legislation deviates from past government positions and requires a formal revision of the constitution. Two other experts invited by the opposition said officials' portrayal of new missions as risk-free, non-combative activity was misleading.
More than 200 constitution experts in Japan have joined a statement calling the legislation unconstitutional and demanding the Abe government scrap it. Japan's Bar Association issued a similar statement Wednesday.