Japan’s controversial and widely disliked new security bill was passed into law early on Saturday morning, as the LDP, their coalition partner Komeito, and a handful of smaller parties pushed the bill through the Upper House following weeks of protests both outside and inside the Diet. It’s been a messy passage for the bill, with the vote delayed on multiple occasions and finally taking place, following widely publicised and rather embarrassing scuffles on the Diet floor, in the small hours of the morning of the 19th.
This bill is arguably the most significant step towards the normalisation of Japan’s military since the formation of the JSDF (Japan Self-Defense Forces, the country’s don’t-call-it-an-army which despite being not-an-army has the world’s sixth largest military budget) in the 1950s. Many pacifists and some left-wing politicians maintain that the very existence of the JSDF is in contradiction of Article 9 of the nation’s constitution, which renounces war and the use of force in international disputes, and states rather clearly: “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained” (「陸海空軍その他の戦力は、これを保持しない」). Maintaining the legality of the JSDF is a complex dance whose steps have become well-practiced over the past few decades; the nature of the equipment the forces use (largely speaking defensive and short-range, nothing overtly capable of attacking other nations), the operations on which they are deployed (most often disaster relief operations within Japan, though non-combat roles in peacekeeping missions overseas have, with much controversy, been introduced in the past couple of decades) and even the training they undertake is all calculated to reinforce the not-an-army nature of the JSDF. The dance works; the JSDF is an established, accepted and popular organisation, and opposition to its existence on constitutional grounds is a moot point.
The constitutionality of this latest security bill, on the other hand, is far from moot. Constitutional scholars have lined up to condemn the bill; those supporting it are so thin on the ground that even the expert (Waseda University professor Hasebe Yasuo) called by the LDP to testify at Diet hearings turned out to think the bill was unconstitutional. The bill opens up the possibility of Japanese troops being permitted to engage in combat in overseas operations – up until now, Japanese troops could not even return fire when fired upon, and thus had to be protected by troops from other countries when they engaged in reconstruction or peacekeeping missions. It also enables “mutual self-defence” (集団的自衛権), meaning that Japan may, in some limited circumstances (though just how limited remains worryingly unclear) come to the defence of an allied nation that is under attack. Both of these changes required the alteration of the government’s official, legal interpretation of the constitution; this reinterpretation is, according to practically every eminent legal scholar or practitioner in the land, a step too far, breaking rather than bending the constitution.
The consequence is that protestors against the security legislation come from two major schools of thought. The first is the anti-war group, which includes the recently very high-profile youth group SEALDs – a group who have been at the front-line of the regular public demonstrations against the bill and who are presented, not entirely honestly, as being a spontaneous upwelling of youth activism against remilitarisation and (if you’re talking to one of those given to more extreme rhetoric) fascism. In truth, SEALDs is at least partially a very successful rebranding exercise by the same aging protest veterans who have been shouting down the Abe government over remilitarisation, the state secrets bill and nuclear power for several years; with media attention for their protests fading, they cleverly pushed younger faces to the fore, creating a compelling narrative of Japan’s youth being awoken to political participation in defence of their nation’s pacifism. This is not to doubt or pour scorn upon the genuine and heartfelt nature of the protests voiced by the young people who have become SEALDs’ public faces; merely to suggest that we shouldn’t get too excited about the political awakening of Japan’s youth, as there’s little evidence that it yet extends beyond the handful of bright youngsters at the demos.
The second group protesting the bills, generally far more quietly and with far fewer signs equating Prime Minister Abe with Hitler or Stalin, disagree on the basis of constitutionality, as outlined above. There are plenty of people who, I think, are relatively comfortable with the moderate changes being proposed to Japan’s security position but deeply uncomfortable with the government’s decision to ignore or bypass the constitution in order to achieve these changes. Others are concerned that the government’s deaf ear to public opinion represents a disdain for democratic process, although the Abe government would no doubt point out (with some justification) that it was resoundingly returned to power in a general election last December, when the security bill was already firmly on the agenda.
In theory, if the security bill is unconstitutional, there is a safety mechanism within Japan’s model of democracy – the Supreme Court, which is empowered to make rulings on the constitutionality of legislation. Despite the near-unanimous judgement of legal scholars (and even of some Supreme Court alumni) that the legislation fails to pass the constitutional test, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who truly expects the Supreme Court to strike down the bill. Unlike the US Supreme Court, which has many failings but does largely manage to act as a counterbalance to the power of the government, Japan’s Supreme Court is noted for its unwillingness to rock the boat and has only issued judgements going against government legislation on a handful of occasions since the 1950s. For it to strike down a bill which is so high-profile, so essential to an LDP programme of government and to a prime minister’s career, and so central to the future structure of US-Japan relations, would be one of the most extraordinary upsets in postwar Japanese politics; it is almost unthinkable. The most likely outcome of a Supreme Court hearing is a mild expression of legal discomfort that falls far short of actually declaring the legislation unconstitutional, a formula which the court has also preferred in its rulings on the legality of recent Japanese elections (which have consistently violated rules on the discrepancy of population and hence vote values between rural and urban constituencies).
SEALDs and other protest groups have vowed to fight on – but in reality, if the Supreme Court does not strike down the legislation (a remote possibility at best), the chances of it being repealed are vanishingly remote. No future LDP government will reverse this legislation, and realistically, barring some extraordinary change in the political environment which places the Japan Communist Party or the Social Democratic Party in power, no other government will either. The DPJ, still hugely diminished since its crippling electoral defeat in 2012 but still the best chance of a non-LDP government at any time in the foreseeable future, has taken the side of the protestors; but by the time it comes to power again in any imaginable scenario, the security alliance between the US and Japan will already be operating on the basis of the new rules enabled by this legislation. It’s one thing to refuse US requests to engage in certain kinds of operation and engagement for many years – as Japanese governments have done, to great US frustration, for decades – it’s entirely another to pull out from existing engagements and commitments, deliberately passing legislation to restrict operations and defy US wishes. As the DPJ discovered last time they came into power, when Prime Minister Hatoyama was forced to resign over his foolish unilateral pledge to defy the US’ plans for its military bases in Okinawa, drastic alterations to international agreements, especially those which would fly directly in the face of the US-Japan Security Treaty, make very poor campaign pledges. With the bills passed, the DPJ – if they have any sense – will likely dial down their rhetoric and start engaging with other issues (again, if they have any sense, they’ll focus on the economy and the utter disappointment of Abenomics).
The bill, in short, is now a fait accompli, failing a deus ex machina appearance from a Supreme Court that suddenly finds itself in possession of a functioning spine. The mainsteam political parties will likely recognise it as such and withdraw from campaigning on this issue, leaving groups such as SEALDs looking increasingly fringe and isolated. Yet there’s still value to their continued campaign, because much of the fear of this bill comes from a slippery-slope argument; a belief that for Abe, this bill is only another step on a path that will push Japan back to its pre-war imperialism, hardline nationalism and fascist militarism. The bill would be controversial no matter who proposed it, but it’s all the more hated because it’s Abe at the helm; and while the bill itself is now in a very solid position, continued protests against Abe and his policies may spread discomfort with his leadership and embolden his rivals within and without the LDP. History could come full circle; just as Abe’s grandfather, the “Showa monster” Kishi Nobusuke, managed to pass the 1960 revision to the US-Japan Security Treaty but was forced to resign in the aftermath, so too may Abe’s security bill pass safely while simultaneously igniting the flame that will eventually smoke him out of office.
There’s just one problem; there’s really nobody convincing on the stage who might step forward to challenge and replace him. Until he’s actually got a rival, does it even matter how little the people trust Shinzo Abe’s motives and policies?