Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the parliament building in Tokyo, September 2015. 
Toru Hanai / REUTERS

On September 18 (or in the early hours of September 19, Tokyo time), Japan’s legislature, the Diet, passed a set of 11 bills that will pave the way for a modest expansion of the role and capacity of the country’s military. There has been a heated public debate about the implications of these bills for Japan’s regional security role and for the operations of its Self-Defense Forces (SDF). Proponents of the legislation believe that the bills—which will alter the legal and institutional framework of Japan’s security policies; expand the role of the SDF in non-lethal activities, such as disaster relief; and permit Japanese forces to come to the aid of allies under certain strict conditions, in what is known as collective self-defense—will make Japan safer and a more useful partner to the United States. Critics, meanwhile, paint the new laws as “war bills,” which, they argue, will allow Japan to send the SDF to fight in foreign wars under the pretense of collective self-defense in violation of Japan’s pacifist constitution.  

In this controversy, little attention has been paid to the consequences of the bills’ passage for Japan’s domestic politics. Those consequences will be serious indeed. Namely, the deliberations over the legislation have politicized security-related issues and severely depleted the political capital of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In turn, this could limit Abe’s chances of enacting other items on the ambitious agenda he laid out upon entering office in December 2012, such as structural reforms to the Japanese economy.

Much of the vast reservoir of political capital that Abe held when he entered office has now been spent.

CONSTITUTIONAL FAULT LINES

For most of the Cold War, Japanese domestic politics were largely a contest between the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Japan Socialist Party (JSP), which differed dramatically in their ideological positions. Whereas the LDP supported Japan’s alliance with the United States and was open to the revision of the pacifist clause in the Japanese constitution, the JSP supported unarmed neutrality and opposed Tokyo’s alliance with Washington. These divisions were highly apparent in the deliberations on security policy, in which the JSP’s preferred tactic was to rely on arguments related to constitutionality, rather than to engage the LDP in policy-driven debates.

After Socialist Premier Tomiichi Murayama abandoned the JSP’s stance of “constitutional pacifism” and unarmed neutrality, recognized the constitutionality of the SDF, and declared support for the U.S.–Japan Security Treaty as the basis of Japan’s security framework in the mid-1990s, these ideological debates subsided and gave rise to more measured deliberations on the means by which Japan could, or should, contribute to international security. Those discussions were never robust, but they represented progress.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviews members of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in Omitama, October 2014.
Toru Hanai / REUTERS

The recent debates in the Diet, however, have revived the fault lines of the pre-Murayama era. Although most of today’s opposition parties are less rigid than the JSP, their dominant tactic in opposing the security reforms has been an apparent refusal to engage with the LDP on issues beyond constitutional reinterpretation and the risk of sending the SDF to war. Their approach signals an unfortunate return to polarized security debates largely devoid of actionable content.

In the short term, this polarization will make it difficult for Abe to work on some of the critical security issues confronting Japan. The Diet, for example, still needs to discuss how the new security legislation will affect Japan’s Mid-Term Defense Plan, which defines the country’s defense policy and capabilities through 2018 and requires the legislature’s approval if it is to be revised. The security reforms will likely translate into what should be uncontroversial changes to the defense budget, weapons procurement, and SDF training, but even those revisions could cause an uproar due to their close connection to issues such as allied interoperability and international partnering on military exercises and missions, which are central to the question of Japan’s regional security role. Faced with this likely challenge, the Abe government may choose to let the current Mid-Term Defense Plan run until 2018 without revising it.

Amending the so-called “peace clause” of the Japanese constitution to provide a constitutional basis for the SDF and to revise the language that currently bans Japan’s use of force in international disputes, meanwhile, is off the table. Even if Abe could obtain the necessary two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet to pursue an amendment, it would likely be rejected in the subsequent national referendum that is required for constitutional revision. The political opposition produced by the recent security legislation, in other words, has effectively shelved the possibility of constitutional reform, if such reform was ever possible in the first place.

The political opposition produced by the recent security legislation has effectively shelved the possibility of constitutional reform.

The effect of the security reforms on new SDF operations, however, remains unclear. Some non-lethal areas covered by the security legislation, such as natural disaster response, should not provoke much controversy. Those changes that relate to direct military action, however, are likely to raise the opposition’s ire. The revelation in Upper House deliberations on August 11 that the SDF’s Joint Staff Office had already examined how the security reforms might affect military operations, for example, caused much controversy. Among other issues, the Joint Staff Office’s study discussed permitting SDF units on peacekeeping missions in South Sudan to use force to protect civilians and allied troops located beyond the immediate operational area of Japanese forces, in what would constitute an expansion of their military role. Opposition lawmakers believed those discussions had undermined their authority by considering policies for which there was not yet a legal basis.

Abe will soon face a crucial decision. If he chooses to approve the expanded Japanese role in South Sudan, he will set a crucial precedent that will make future SDF dispatches on similar missions easier—but he will also risk intensifying the opposition to his administration in the Diet and among the Japanese public. If he instead decides to focus on restoring his political capital, he may choose to postpone a decision on the issue until after elections for the Diet’s Upper House in 2016.

WEAKENED, BUT NOT WEAK

This dilemma highlights another important consequence of the recent security reforms: the toll of the bills’ passage on Abe himself. Because the Abe administration was unable to convincingly explain the necessity for security reforms, it failed to obtain broad public support for its proposals. Instead, its behavior encouraged the perception that the prime minister had used his coalition’s majority to force the bills through the legislature. Polls by media organizations across the ideological spectrum demonstrate that a majority of the public both oppose the bills and feel that the government has not adequately explained them, sentiments to which demonstrations across the country attest. Not surprisingly, most polls show that more people now disapprove of Abe than support him. As a result, much of the vast reservoir of political capital that Abe held when he entered office has now been spent.

A protest against the security bills near the parliament building in Tokyo, August 2015. 
THOMAS PETER / REUTERS

Currently, the LDP and its coalition partner control a majority of the 242 seats in the Diet’s Upper House. But there is much that could soon render that majority less effective. Rising dissatisfaction with Abe will raise the possibility of protest votes in next year’s Upper House elections, to the benefit of the opposition. Further, the Diet’s June decision to lower the national voting age from 20 to 18 for those elections will enfranchise a demographic that has generally opposed Abe’s security reforms, potentially giving the opposition an additional boost in 2016. And the Japan Innovation Party, the one group that many observers thought was willing to work with Abe, is on the verge of imploding after two of its leaders announced they would leave the party to focus on local politics in Osaka.

Taken together, these developments suggest that Abe’s coalition will suffer losses in next year’s Upper House election, although it remains unclear whether the coalition will lose its majority there. But if the opposition can win enough seats to cobble together a coalition of its own, Japan could return to a period of divided government in which opposing parties control the two chambers of the Diet. That would make legislating difficult—a problem for Abe since there is still a great deal on his agenda, from negotiating and approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership to continuing structural reforms in Japan’s economy.

Polarization in the Diet will make it difficult for Abe to work on some of the critical security issues confronting Japan.

Although Abe has lost some political ground as a result of the security reforms, he is hardly weak. Despite occasional grumblings from within his own party, he was reelected LDP president on September 8 without opposition. The main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), meanwhile, is far from the force it was when it briefly took power in 2009. And even if it were to gain enough seats to form an anti-government coalition in the Upper House, the DPJ would struggle to rally other opposition parties around issues of common interest. Unless something catastrophic happens, such as a disastrous downturn in the economy or the death of an SDF member on an overseas mission, challenges from within the LDP and mobilization among the opposition parties are unlikely to succeed.

In all likelihood, in other words, Abe will remain in power until Japan’s next general election, in 2018. But he is much more vulnerable than he was before the security deliberations began, and that vulnerability will limit his ability to effectively govern in the years to come.  

  • JEFFREY W. HORNUNG is the Fellow for the Security and Foreign Affairs Program at Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.
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