THERE IS NOTHING LIKE AN ATOMIC EXPLOSION to bring clarity to international relations, and the North Korean nuclear test was no exception. Since Pyongyang demonstrated its nuclear capability, the United States and Japan have finally begun to consider the steps that will be necessary to contain North Korean nuclear proliferation and apply pressure to undermine the Kim regime. But these efforts are plagued by a dirty little secret: Tokyo is currently prohibited from coming to the defense of U.S. naval forces or trying and intercept a missile headed toward U.S. territory.
According to a 1981 ruling of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau (CLB), a group of scholars who advise the prime minister on the constitutionality of laws and policy in a Supreme Court-like fashion, for Japan to assist U.S. forces would be an act of "collective self-defense." The CLB argues that while Tokyo possesses the inherent right to collective self-defense as a sovereign state, Article 9 of the postwar "Peace Constitution" prohibits the country from exercising it.
The consequences of this interpretation have always bordered on the absurd. At the time of the ruling, it meant that Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) would have to watch idly by while the U.S. Navy fought a Soviet invasion, so long as the Russians were smart enough to engage only American ships. Today, the prohibition means that if North Korea were to launch a missile over Japanese territory toward Guam, it is not clear that Tokyo could intercept the warhead. If the missile were targeted at the American homeland, and thus on a flight path that avoided Japan's airspace, almost any response would be unconstitutional. If the SDF did respond, it would be doing in violation of the constitution, thus making a mockery of Japan's status as an advanced, liberal democracy.
North Korea's consecutive missile and nuclear weapons tests have transformed these theoretical constraints into unacceptable liabilities in American efforts to defend against one of the world's most dangerous regimes. Fortunately, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears poised to lead Japan past the prohibition on collective self-defense as part of an effort to conduct joint inspections of suspected North Korean shipments of narcotics and proliferated materials.
Speaking before Japan's Diet last week, Minister of State for Defense Fumio Kyuma announced that he could not clearly distinguish between the notions of "individual self-defense" and "collective self-defense" when Japan is conducting operations with the United States. Kyuma used a common sense analogy--asking if two friends walking together would not fight together if one was attacked by criminal--to launch a quiet revolution in Japan's security policy.
Kyuma's statement has been interpreted to mean that the Maritime Self-Defense Forces will create an "operational exception" to the ban on collective self-defense. The consequences of this shift are tremendous--the prohibition on collective self-defense is one of the final barriers that have prevented Tokyo from taking its rightful place as a "normal country" that carries a full share of responsibility for security in Asia and the world. As Tokyo goes forward with this effort, there are two steps that Washington can still expect Japan to take.
First, Tokyo needs to expand upon this operational exception to the ban on collective self-defense to clarify that as its ballistic missile defense capabilities come online, Japan will use them to target any hostile missile departing North Korea--be it bound for Japanese territory, beyond Japan to U.S. possessions in the Pacific, or to the American mainland. The operational requirements of ballistic missile defense require that the shooters know they have clear rules of engagement to destroy targets without having to debate constitutional rulings.
If Washington wants to help Tokyo reach this logical outcome, it can use current talks on expediting delivery of an upgrading ABM system for Japan's Aegis destroyers to include a clarification on how the weapons system will be used. The delivery of additional ABM capabilities to East Asia is crucial, but it is unacceptable that those capabilities could be turned off when they are most needed.
Second, while it is convenient that the Japanese government can devise an artful circumvention of constitutional restraints, this is not a permanent solution for Japan's security needs. Prime Minister Abe has declared that constitutional reform will be a major goal, and his early efforts to improve regional ties and exert Tokyo's leadership in response to the North Korean nuclear crisis will bolster his attempt to do so.
While constitutional reform promises to be controversial, the United States can help lay the groundwork for regional acceptance of Tokyo's efforts. Washington should not only welcome an updated constitution as a means to formalize Japan's more proactive posture, but also defend the reform effort to Beijing and Seoul as a step for guaranteeing that Japan's future security policies reflect a meaningful constitutional text, rather than an essentially hollow document that is interpreted and reinterpreted to meet the exigency of the day.
Japan's quiet security revolution is a remarkable achievement for both the Abe government and the U.S.-Japanese alliance. Now it is up to Washington and Tokyo to see that this breakthrough is used as the basis for further efforts to contain North Korea's proliferation and missile development activities, as well as the basis for Japan's continued emergence as a normal power.
Christopher Griffin is a research associate in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.