The Danger in Abe’s Constitutional Amendment Proposal

(Published in The Japan Times, Aug. 5, 2019)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has demanded that the Diet move forward with debating his Liberal Democratic Party’s proposal for amending Article 9 of the Constitution, with a view to possibly having a vote on the issue in 2020. Having failed to retain a two-thirds supermajority in the Upper House election on July 21, he will need to sway some members outside of his coalition to win approval of any such amendment, and thus the debate will be more meaningful, its consequences more significant.

Many observers will be struck by how modest the new amendment proposal seems, and thus may be lulled into thinking that there is little to fear from it. This is a grave mistake. Once analyzed in its broader context, the ramifications of the proposal look much more dangerous.

To begin, it will be recalled that Article 9 has two paragraphs. The first provides that Japan renounces war and the threat or use of force as sovereign rights of the nation. The second, which has been more controversial and far less effective, has two clauses: first, a prohibition on the maintenance of land, sea or air forces or other war potential; and second, a denial of the rights of belligerency. While many legal scholars view the existence and size of the Self-Defense Forces as being patently inconsistent with this provision, that is not the official view.

Read more…

Japan’s Dilemma in the Persian Gulf

(Published in Australian Institute of International Affairs: Australian Outlook, Jun. 26, 2019)

In the wake of the recent attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf, there has been considerable discussion about Europe’s difficult position amidst the escalating tension between the United States and Iran. There has been far less discussion of Japan’s situation. Yet one of the ships was Japanese-owned, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran at the time of the attack, specifically trying to dampen those tensions. Nonetheless, Japan distanced itself from the American accusations of Iran’s role in quite surprising and uncharacteristic fashion.

Why was that? Like the EU, Japan appeared to be on the horns of a dilemma, but the nature of its dilemma seemed far less clear. One explanation may lie with the Japanese government’s 2014 so-called “reinterpretation” of the war-renouncing provision of the Constitution. The current situation in the Gulf dovetailed with that “reinterpretation” in manner that created a dilemma with huge risks for the government.

Japan’s Surprising Response to the Crisis

Most readers would be familiar with the increasing tensions between Iran and the United States, from the American withdrawal last year from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the American tightening of sanctions since then, through to the recent U.S. deployment of forces to the region, followed by the two separate attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman. This timeline is a good refresher.

Read more…

Japan’s Definition of Armed Attack and ‘Bloody Nose’ Strikes Against North Korea

(published in Just Security, Feb. 1, 2018)

Shinzō_Abe_and_Donald_Trump_in_Palm_Beach_(2)There has been an important discussion in the last couple of weeks over the legality of possible limited strikes, part of a so-called “bloody nose” strategy, by the United States against North Korea. The main issue of that debate has been quite conclusively determined: such a strike would not be legal. And as Victor Cha, the White House’s pick, until recently, to be ambassador to South Korea, laid out in an op-ed this week, it would be deeply misguided as a policy choice. There remains more to be said, however, about a couple of interesting and potentially important questions regarding Japan’s position in relation to such strikes. One, which has been raised but not fully answered in the discussion, relates to whether Japan has already somehow consented in advance to U.S. action in collective self-defense of Japan. The second, which has not been explicitly addressed at all, is whether Japan defines “armed attack” for purposes of triggering the right of self-defense differently than does the U.S.

To recap briefly, the debate was set off by an essay in Lawfare by two West Point professors, Army Lt. Col. Shane Reeves and Army Capt. Robert Lawless, arguing that limited strikes on North Korea would be lawful. Virtually all elements of their argument were quite persuasively demolished by Kevin Jon Heller in Opinio Juris, and Michael Schmitt and Ryan Goodman here in Just Security.

A central premise of one strand of the Reeves/Lawless argument was that the test-firing of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) into the territory of Japan could constitute an armed attack, triggering an American right to use force as an exercise of collective self-defense. They were dismissive of the position of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that collective self-defense requires a request from and consent of the country under attack, suggesting that the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the U.S. and Japan (the “U.S.-Japan Security Treaty”), “may provide a basis” for American action. They went on to note that, in their view, Japan was in any event very unlikely to oppose American strikes in defense of Japan.

Read more…

Examining Japan’s “Reinterpretation” of Article 9 Through the Lens of Informal Amendment Theory

Fordham-webMy latest big law review article has just been published: “The Legitimacy of Informal Constitutional Amendment and the ‘Reinterpretation’ of Japan’s War Powers,” 40 Fordham International Law Journal 427 (2017). It analyzes the “reinterpretation” of Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan for what insights it can offer our understanding of theories of informal constitutional amendment. At the same time it examines what those theories can tell us about the legitimacy of the Japanese “reinterpretation.” The abstract is as follows:

The government of Japan has purported to reinterpret the famous war-renouncing provision of the Constitution in a controversial process that deliberately circumvented the formal amendment procedure. This article argues that these developments should be of great interest to constitutional law scholars in America because they bring into sharp focus issues that remain underdeveloped and unresolved in the debate over informal amendment. Theories on informal amendment suggest that there are some constitutional changes that exceed the reasonable range of normal interpretive development, but which are not implemented through formal amendment procedures. The existence, scope, and legitimacy of such informal amendments remains hotly contested.

This article focuses on the key issue of legitimacy. It uses the Japanese reinterpretation as the context in which to explore the relationship among three suggested factors affecting the legitimacy of informal amendment, namely: the public ratification of the change; the intent of the agents of the change; and the passage of time. It also suggests a new way of conceptualizing the relationship among authority, legitimacy, and time in thinking about informal amendments, in that the level of constitutional authority and degree of legitimacy that may be enjoyed by contested changes will begin to diverge with the passage of time.

The article argues that deliberate attempts to effect significant constitutional change in a manner calculated to circumvent the formal amendment process—such as the Abe government’s reinterpretation effort in Japan—are prima facie unauthorized and illegitimate at the time they occur. Moreover, only the most explicit and deliberate expressions of popular sovereignty can serve to legitimate such changes. But while such deliberate informal change will always remain unauthorized, it may be legitimated with the passage of time. I argue that this legitimation may, and should, take longer than for less contested forms of change.