The Not Surprising VisitBut was it constitutional?
By Takuya Nishimura, Editorial Writer, The Hokkaido Shimbun
The views expressed by the author are his own and are not associated with The Hokkaido Shimbun
April 3, 2023
News organizations in Japan reported with sensational headlines the visit of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, as the chairman of Group 7, to the capital of Ukraine. At the time the Russian invasion was showing signs of a quagmire, and Western support was indispensable. In the meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Kishida pledged multiple forms of assistance to support Ukraine its historic conflict to maintain democratic ties in the world.
The real surprise of the visit was that most people in Japan, known as a nation whose constitution adopts strict pacifism, approved of his visit to the place where an actual war was being waged. The Japanese people appear to be accustomed to the real world that is confused by unilateral Russian aggression to Ukraine.
Prime Minister Kishida’s visit has at least one precedent. In 2003, the Koizumi Administration decided to support U.S. President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” by sending Japanese Self-defense Forces to Samawah, Iraq. This decision led to a broad argument whether the forces’ activities would be made only within the non-combat zone. Sending the forces to a combat zone was recognized as a violation of the constitution of Japan, which renounces war as a measure of settling international conflicts. When the Ministry of Defense disclosed in 2018 the official records of SDF activities in Iraq, the opposition parties accused the government of breaching the constitution, because the description included the word “combat” around the camp.
A similar question arises here: is the PM's visit to the combat zone constitutional? As long as Kyiv was exposed to Russian missile or drone strikes, it could be said that Kishida's visit was made in the combat zone. The PM commands and controls the Self-defense Forces under Article 7 of the Self-defense Forces Act. Even though actual troops did not accompany him, Kishida’s visit means that Japan's supreme commander is not neutral in the conflict and is supporting one of the combatants that is engaged in a war (as is its enemy) as a measure of settling an international conflict.
However, the legitimacy or implications of the PM’s visit was not discussed in Japan. It is likely that the unjust invasion by the Russians offset the uncertain constitutionality of Kishida’s visit to a country at war. And, maybe, accepting the responsibilities of being a G7 country.
During the visit, both leaders delivered a joint statement on “the special global partnership” between Japan and Ukraine. The statement denounced Russia for its baseless aggression against Ukraine, declared that Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons was unacceptable, and increased the G7 commitment to $39 billion for fiscal and economic support of Ukraine. The leaders also shared serious concerns on the situation in the East and South China Seas. Zelenskyy pronounced Kishida a protector of Ukraine and international order and accepted Kishida’s invitation to G7 Hiroshima Summit in May (Zelenskyy will attend virtually.) Before the meeting, Kishida visited the city of Bucha where Russian troops had massacred Ukrainians, and displayed solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
Among the reasons why there were no active arguments on the constitutionality of the visit is that Kishida has maintained from the beginning a relatively firm position against the Russian invasion. The Japanese people could easily understand the visit as a diplomatic activity. Indeed, Kishida was the last leader among G7 nations to visit the capital of Ukraine after he had received an invitation from Zelenskyy in a telephone conversation in January. The surprise visit was therefore not surprising for Japanese people.
One possible negative aspect of the visit is the impact on Japan’s relationship with China. On the same day that Kishida met with Zelenskyy in Kyiv, Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Moscow in talks with Putin. Thus, two leaders of major powers in Asia were visibly standing on opposite sides of a war. A spokesperson for Foreign Ministry of China said that China hoped Japan would help settle the conflict in Ukraine rather than to do the opposite. It is obvious that Kishida has more diplomatic work to do in terms of managing Japan’s relationship with China, as the day of G7 Summit meeting in Hiroshima is approaching.