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Posts Tagged ‘shinzo abe’

Trump is no gift for Abe and the LDP

As Japan’s establishment and observers start to come to grips with the implications of a Trump administration for the country, one comment I’ve heard a lot is that this is a gift for Shinzo Abe and his inner circle. It clears the way for them to enact their long dreamed-of reforms, which would upend the post-war national order and return the country to a normalised military posture. Certainly, the almost certain cancellation of TPP is a blow to Abenomics, but in this view of events, Trump’s foreign policy stance is a huge boost for Abe’s militaristic agenda.

In one respect, that’s right. Trump’s election and the huge question mark it places over the stability and reliability of the 64 year old US-Japan security alliance does make Japan’s military normalisation vastly more probable. Even if the Trump administration does not, as seems very likely, demand an enormous increase in Japan’s financial contribution to the US military presence here (notably, Japan already pays a very large proportion of the US’ base costs) and talk down the nature of its commitment to the alliance, the unprecedented uncertainty his presidency introduces to the alliance will sway opinon among Japan’s political establishment and public alike. More significant military budget increases (not the small, conservative increases seen thus far) are almost inevitable; reform of Article 9 of the constitution, which looked all but impossible last week, may now be within the LDP’s grasp.

To call this a “gift” to the Abe administration, however, is a misreading of the reality. The Japanese government is not acting like the recipient of a long-desired gift; rather, it’s scrambling desperately to shore up and guarantee a continuation of the status quo. Abe was among the first leaders to speak to President-Elect Trump after his victory, not because he likes Trump’s positions but rather because Trump’s statements on Japan imply an uncertain and hence dangerous future for the East Asian order. Abe will also be one of the first world leaders to visit Trump and speak face to face with him in New York. In short, Abe and his officials are pulling out every stop and calling in every favour to ensure that this “gift” doesn’t actually materialise.

Why? Simply put, the LDP’s pursuit of remilitarisation and Article 9 reform has been the political equivalent of a dog chasing cars. It’s very fun and you get to make a whole lot of noise, but what on earth is a dog to do if one day it actually catches a car? It’s big, scary, hard and intimidating; the dog hasn’t the faintest idea what to do with it, and for all its chasing and barking, has never actually sat back on its hindquarters to come up with a plan of action for after the car is caught.

The LDP is a dog that just caught a car. Remilitarisation and the upending of the postwar order in Japan has been an issue that the LDP, and especially its more regressive wing (including Abe and much of his inner circle) has enjoyed harping on about for decades. Seriously, for all the talk of Japan’s right-wing shift or Abe’s nationalism, there’s nothing new under the rising sun; LDP leaders as far back as Nakasone in the early 1980s constantly banged on the same populist drum, and it was Koizumi back in 2001, not Abe, who reignited the whole mess around Yasukuni Shrine. Talking up military normalisation, making small, gradual changes (a peacekeeping operation here, a reinterpretation of legal advice there) to the existing order and muttering loudly about “masochistic” accounts of history or “correcting” other countries’ viewpoints is red meat for a certain portion of the LDP base. It’s a strand of populist rhetoric that has been a part of the LDP’s messaging since Nakasone, but in a relatively low-key way; the LDP knows that most of the Japanese electorate supports the constitution, dislikes the idea of overseas military engagements, rather likes the postwar order and will only tolerate this kind of populist rhetoric as long as it’s seen, broadly, as harmless letting off of steam by slightly daft nationalists.

The result is that for all the talk, all the noise and the chest-beating, there is no plan in place for Japan to take independent control of its national security. There is no plan for full normalisation of the Japan Self-Defence Forces into an actual national military. There is no roadmap for any of this. There isn’t even a coherent plan for reforming the constitution; the much-vaunted “ideal constitution” drafted by LDP right-wingers and posted online some years ago is a fever-dream of return to a dimly imagined glorious past that none of its authors ever imagined actually putting into practice. As for the JSDF, it is an impressive military force in its own right – extremely well-trained, well-organised and by far the most technologically advanced military force in Asia – but it’s designed to function in concert with the US military, fulfiling very specific roles alongside the much more capable and flexible US forces. Upgrading, repurposing and realigning the JSDF into a military capable of independent operation is an enormous undertaking – expensive, difficult and time-consuming.

That’s the car the LDP has been chasing, and has just caught. The most extreme (and thankfully unlikely) version of what happens next sees President Trump fulfil his most hardline electoral promise – vacating the US’ bases in Japan and pulling back US forces from East Asia generally. While the JSDF is a competent and well-equipped force, it is in no position to fill that vacuum; even on something as simple and vital as missile defence, Japan’s advanced AEGIS destroyer fleet relies upon the presence of US vessels to fill gaps in the shield through which a North Korean missile might slip, and the timescale for achieving operational independence in that regard alone is on the order of many years. A less extreme (and arguably the most likely) version sees the US remaining in Japan, but demanding more financial support for its presence, and appearing less robust in its commitment to defend Japan’s extremities – including sort-of contested (in a “China making up flat-out nonsense” sense that has become wearily familiar across Asia of late) territories like the Senkaku Islands. While that would reduce some pressure, ensuring that the US military would remain involved in Japan’s security, it will still demand essentially the same long-term response from the Japanese Govermment. If there is even the slightest doubt in the US’ willingness to defend Japan from attack, Japan has an absolute requirement to shift the posture of the JSDF – constitutionally, legally, technologically and strategically – to that of a normalised military capable of independent functioning.

Abe and his inner circle don’t want to do that. Sure, they’d like that to happen, but the passive voice is important here; it’d be great if someone else just went and did it overnight with a sprinkling of magical fairy dust, but the daunting, years-long project of turning around Japan’s strongly opposed public opinon, its constitution and legal system, its military stance and its governing institutions to allow such a change is a minefield the LDP never really planned on actually walking into.

That’s why Abe was so quick to lift the phone to President-Elect Trump, and why he’s been so quick to arrange to meet him in New York. The opportunity to reform Article 9 has never been greater, but that’s a distant second in Japan’s priorities right now; its most pressing and urgent priority is to head off the disaster that would be the US backing off even slightly from its commitment to the US-Japan alliance. Constitutional reform and military realignment is on the table, but it’s no gift; nobody in the LDP with any clarity of outlook is smiling at the prospect right now. Maintaining the status quo as much as possible will be the number one priority of Abe, his administation and any of his possible successors for the duration of the Trump presidency.

Restraint, not Aggression, in Japan’s Military Budget Increase

JSDF troops with their flag

The remilitarisation of Japan is a popular theme for the international media. It gives a clear, dramatic narrative to international news coverage that might otherwise bore readers. In this narrative Japan’s leadership seek to cast off the shackles of the post-1945 world order, to rewrite the pacifist constitution, rebuild their military forces, inculcate hatred of their Asian neighbours, and adopt an aggressive, warlike stance towards Asia. Leading the charge is prime minister Shinzo Abe, with fellow members of the shadowy conservative/revisionist Nippon Kaigi organisation being given senior government positions from which to realise their militaristic goals.

Not all journalists or publications buy this narrative in its entirety – but either in full-blown “Abe is a Fascist!” form or in a more diluted manner, it has become the master narrative of Japanese politics in the international press. That narrative frame can be seen in coverage this week of the request by Japan’s Ministry of Defence for a 2.8% budget increase. “Japanese Government Urges Another Increase in Military Spending” reports the New York Times; “Japan Defence Ministry seeks Record Budget to Counter Chinese Threat” says The Guardian. Both stories, in common with most coverage of the budget request, emphasise that this is part of an ongoing process of (re)militarisation.

I don’t wish to single out the NYT or the Guardian, nor the writers of these articles (Mokoto Rich and Justin McCurry respectively) – my intention isn’t to bash their coverage, which is actually more even-handed and well-researched than a lot of other articles on this topic. Rather, I’m linking to those articles to demonstrate that even the better news outlets continue to support a narrative about Japan which deserves to be questioned more closely.

There are lots of questions to be asked about this narrative. We might ask why Nippon Kaigi, for all that some of its policy positions are unpleasant or ill-informed, is considered any more shady than other political lobbying groups. We might ask why an organisation portrayed in the media as a shadowy background powerbroker would have an extensive and informative website setting out its aims and policies, or media briefings with its leaders – including one fairly recently at the FCCJ, Tokyo’s foreign correspondents club. We might also ask why, following the recent House of Councillors’ election, media outlets almost universally reported that Abe’s government now had the votes necessary to reform the constitution, ignoring the fact that many of those who support constitutional reform (including the LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito) support entirely different proposed reforms to the LDP – not to mention that any reform would need to pass a referendum, too.

This week’s conversation is about military budget, though, so let’s look at military budget.

Graph of Military Budget in US$

Military Budget in 2014 US$

This graph shows the military budget of Japan and some of its neighbours over the past 20 years – from 1995 to 2015 – in millions of US$. For ease of comparison, all figures are normalised to 2014 US Dollars. Two things are immediately apparent.

First, Japan’s expenditure hasn’t changed much in 20 years. There were some large rises towards the end of the 1980s, not least because the United States demanded that Japan should pay more towards the cost of US bases on its soil, but since the mid-nineties Japanese expenditure has stayed fairly solid in US$ terms. In fact, its military budget is almost identical to that of Germany, and significantly lower than the United Kingdom – a smaller island nation in a significantly less turbulent part of the world.

Second, Japan’s neighbours are spending huge amounts on military expansion. China’s budget, three to four times greater than Japan’s and growing at 7 to 8% each year, is now second only to the United States (the US isn’t on this graph because it’s ridiculous – the scale required to show the US’ military spending, more than 10 times that of Japan’s, squashes all other countries into a multicoloured line bouncing along the bottom of the graph). Russia now spends double Japan’s budget. South Korea, with less than half the population but a more precarious defence situation, spends a comparable amount to Japan.

We have no data for North Korea, whose aggressive nuclear weapon and missile programs are one of the main reasons for Japan’s budget increases, much of which will be spent on improving missile defences.

Here’s a second way to look at the data.

Graph of Military Budget as a Percentage of GDP

Military Budget as a % of GDP

This graph shows the military budget of Japan, its neighbours and some other countries as a percentage of their GDP over the past 20 years. In some ways it’s a misleading chart – while China looks fairly flat on this graph, its GDP has boomed so the cash it spends on the military has grown enormously even without using a larger proportion of GDP. Japan, meanwhile, has had mostly stagnant GDP figures for the past couple of decades. With those caveats in mind, though, we can pick out some interesting things from this data.

We can see that Japan spends far, far less on defence as a percentage of GDP than pretty much any other major nation. Russia’s expenditure is off the chart (literally), while the USA, South Korea, the UK and China all spend over 2% of their entire GDP on the military. Japan doesn’t belong to the same category of nation at all; in fact, its GDP percentage spend is lower than Germany. The closest nation in the data set to Japan, by this measure, is the notoriously militaristic, sabre-rattling, neighbour-terrifying, aggressively warlike… Canada.

Incidentally, out of every single country in Asia and Oceania, only three spend less of their GDP on defence than Japan – Indonesia (0.9%), Mongolia (0.8%) and Papua New Guinea (0.6%). (If you’re interested, the lowest military budget as a percentage of GDP of any nation in the world was the 0.4% spent by Ireland, Guatemala and Nigeria. Famously neutral Switzerland spent 0.7%.)


None of this is to say that there aren’t some problematic things about Japan’s political trajectory. Abe and his close associates have troubling views on history, and there are valid fears that those views will drive his government towards policies which promote nationalism and xenophobia and erode international ties in East Asia. Much more worrying than anything about Nippon Kaigi is the extent to which his unprecedented dominance of the LDP has shut down intra-party competition and debate; the LDP used to be its own best opposition thanks to healthy competition between factions, which is now all but moribund. And yes, certainly, criticism is due of politicians (in all countries!) who can’t seem to control their childish urges to provoke their neighbours over historical or territorial disagreements.

The master narrative of Japan’s slide towards remilitarisation, nationalism and even fascism, however, just isn’t supported by the facts. Take constitutional revision; while being more seriously considered than at any point since the 1950s, it still has to clear many tall hurdles. More aggressive ideas for changing the constitution are not even supported unanimously by Abe’s LDP colleagues, let alone by the other parties whose support would be needed or the Japanese public who would vote in an eventual referendum.

The increases in the military budget, meanwhile, are eye-opening not as proof of militarism, but as proof of extraordinary restraint. Faced with enormous military build-ups in neighbouring nations – two of whom, North Korea and China, have carried out minor but overtly hostile actions towards Japan in recent years – Japan’s military spend remains modest. It has the third-largest economy in the world but spends less on its military than France or the UK – neither of whom experience either regular military / paramilitary incursions into their waters, as Japan does from China, or the testing of ballistic missiles aimed across their territory, as Japan does from North Korea. (Neither do the neighbours of France and the UK promote educational policies which distort historical fact to demonise France or the UK, tolerate rioters attacking outlets of French or British businesses, or broadcast endless TV shows dramatising often exaggerated accounts of French or British war crimes.)

In the face of these threats, and against a background of increasing pressure on the Japanese Self-Defence Forces to participate fully in international peacekeeping and reconstruction missions (Japan has been bashed for decades in the international community for sending cheques rather than physical assistance to stricken areas), the modest increases to Japan’s defence budgets suggest caution and restraint. Japan remains Asia’s most successful democracy and it relies for much of its security not on enormous military expenditure but on the strength of its diplomatic and economic ties around the region and the world. In the face of real concerns over regional stability in Asia, it would be helpful if the international press desisted from attempting to undermine that position for the sake of more dramatic headlines.

Abe’s Uphill Struggle for Constitutional Revision

Could Yamaguchi side with Abe on constitutional revision?

In 2003, when US president George W. Bush and his advisors were preparing the case for invading Iraq, they announced to the world that they had assembled a “coalition of the willing” who backed military action against Saddam Hussein. The term has become widely reviled, as many of the countries in this supposed “coalition” had no skin in the game (some didn’t even have standing armies), and many were major recipients of US overseas aid. It was a rhetorical flourish, a salad garnish of modesty flimsily covering the dubious status of the invasion under actual international law.

Today, as Japan processes the results from yesterday’s House of Councillors election, there’s a similar phrase that’s doing the rounds; “like-minded parties”. The emerging narrative is that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has assembled a “coalition of the like-minded” – that through stitching together parties and independents in favour of revising Japan’s post-war constitution, he has finally found the two-thirds majorities he needs in both houses of parliament to proceed with that goal.

Abe, in common with many of the more hawkish members of the LDP, doesn’t like the post-war constitution much. He views it, not entirely unfairly, as a document written by Americans and imposed upon Japan. Its restrictions chafe at him, especially in terms of Japan’s ability to assert itself internationally, which is strictly limited by the pacifist Article 9. None of this is secret or hidden. The agenda of Abe and the LDP for constitutional reform is openly discussed. The party’s website even hosts a draft of the reformed constitution it would like to put in place.

Who else is in favour of constitutional revision? According to news agencies running with the “coalition of the like-minded” narrative, the parties in favour are the LDP, their coalition partners Komeito, Initiatives from Osaka (the latest incarnation of the burgeoning but chaotic Kansai-based political movement) and The Party for Japanese Kokoro (a mid-implosion right-wing fringe group founded by the now-retired Shintaro Ishihara). Added to a small number of LDP-leaning independents, this gives a two-thirds majority in both houses. This means that constitutional revision is supposedly on the table. Abe himself has already called for a debate on revision to commence.

The problem with this narrative is that it’s over-simplified to the point of dishonesty. Just as the Iraq War’s “coalition of the willing” included several countries whose “willingness” didn’t extend to any actual participation in conflict, Abe’s “coalition of the like-minded” includes some major groups whose thinking on constitutional revision is markedly different from his own. Primary among those is Komeito, whose inclusion in these lists of “pro-revision” parties is deeply questionable.

Komeito, the political offshoot of lay Buddhist organisation Soka Gakkai, is a socially conservative party whose domestic policies are a relatively comfortable fit for the LDP. The party’s views on international policy and military policy, however, depart radically from the LDP’s. Komeito inherits from Soka Gakkai a strong central pillar of pacifism. While it has been willing to bend its principles to some degree to maintain its mutually beneficial relationship with the LDP, Komeito’s leaders are conscious that its existence depends on the votes of Soka members. Straying too far from the organisation’s philosophy, to the extent of breaking its umbilical link with Soka, would result in the loss of the religious support base that is the party’s primary asset.

Komeito is, officially, in favour of constitutional revision – but there is an enormous gulf between the broad concept of “constitutional revision” and the rather narrower concept of “the constitutional revision which Shinzo Abe wants”. At a speech in Iwakura city in Aichi prefecture earlier this month, Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi made perfectly clear, not for the first time, that his party has “fundamentally different thinking” to the LDP on areas of constitutional revision (「公明と自民で基本的に憲法改正に対する考え方が違っているところがある」). Yamaguchi also pointed out that the situation is more complex than “pro-revision” and “anti-revision”; Komeito is “pro-revision” but has its own agenda about what it would like to revise, while the Democratic Party, officially “anti-revision”, actually has members who strongly favour specific constitutional revisions. (Asahi Shimbun, 2016-07-05, 4総合、p.4)

“Constitutional revision”, in itself, is not necessarily a right-wing, conservative or militaristic objective. The Japanese constitution is a problematic document from many standpoints, and contains many contradictions. The question is what you’d like to revise. Plenty of progressives would like to revise Article 24, which defines marriage as between “both sexes” and seemingly prevents equal marriage from being adopted. Some legal scholars approve of changing Article 41 – which was intended to assert the primacy of the Diet over the Emperor, but has in practice been used to assert its primacy over the Supreme Court. Yet others suggest adding or amending articles to create rights and obligations related to environmental protection.

Including supporters of those changes -such as Komeito, which has hinted at approving of an environmental protection amendment – in the “coalition of the like-minded” is stretching the definition of “like-minded” past breaking point. The problem is that constitutional amendment, as a concept, is wielded by the media as a blunt object. NHK conducted an exit poll yesterday which asked whether voters thought that constitutional revision was necessary, concluding that 33% said “necessary”, 32% disagreed and 35% didn’t know – a major swing against “necessary” compared with the same exit poll in 2013’s election. The devil is in the lack of detail; NHK did not ask voters which part of the constitution they thought needed to be changed. Shorn of detail, the question is ridiculous. Walk into the street in any country with a clipboard and ask the question, “should we change the law”, declining to clarify which law you mean or how it would be changed, and you’ll collect lots of data to which precisely no meaning can be assigned.

The existence of this hypothetical “coalition of the like-minded”, then, is a fantasy. Until its members can agree on what to change and how, there is no coalition, and there are no “like minds”. Abe’s announcement that he wishes to start a discussion to that end is only the beginning of a long, difficult negotiation process whose outcome is far from certain – and Article 9, at least, is probably off the table entirely. Abe knows that Komeito remains a stumbling block to his constitutional ambitions. In TV interviews last night he alluded to the same point Yamaguchi made last week – that there are Democratic Party members in favour of reform. This implies that he knows he may have to lean on unlikely support in order to stitch together a two-thirds majority on any revision, and even then, it’s not going to be the sweeping revision he actually wants.

And all of that, of course, is just to pass the legislation required to hold a referendum – which will require the assent of the majority of the country’s voters to pass, and whose failure would likely cost Abe his political career. This election outcome is little more than a small, shuffling step on a long, steep road towards constitutional revision – and for all the talk of “like-minded parties”, it’s a road that Abe and his right-wing allies are still largely walking alone.

Abe’s Reshuffle Gun is Firing Blanks

Cabinet reshuffles are a big deal in Japanese politics. Where in other nations a reshuffle is generally of interest only to those with skin in the game and those desperately afflicted with a fascination with politics (it’s no way for a person to live, I assure you), in Japan reshuffles are given enormous attention and seen as key milestones in a government’s tenure. This is understandable when you look at the history of Japanese democracy in the post-war era; the Liberal Democratic Party has ruled, with or without the support of a minor coalition party, for around 56 of the past 60 years. When every election returns the same party to government, merely expanding or reducing its majority, the only real vehicle for reform lies in cabinet reshuffles – whose outcome has traditionally been determined by the jockeying for position between the LDP’s various internal factions. The hegemony of the LDP has made reshuffles more politically important than the majority of elections.

This makes reshuffles into a powerful tool for a prime minister; as well as providing a means to placate, reward or punish party factions for their support (or lack of same), the reshuffle has also traditionally been a magic bullet for the all-important cabinet approval rating. Cabinet approval is the public opinion figure which every prime minister must watch with anxious eyes; when it drops below a certain level, conventional wisdom suggests that the prime minister is now an electoral liability to the LDP and should be replaced, making him vulnerable to challenges from within the party. A reshuffle is a shot in the arm for cabinet approval – voters generally seem willing to give a new cabinet time to prove itself, so the approval rating shoots up after a reshuffle.

Abe Shinzo, the current prime minister, has lived a charmed life in terms of his cabinet approval ratings thus far. Indeed, his approval rating is a conundrum that puzles many commentators on Japan. Abe’s rule has boiled down to a succession of deeply unpopular measures – last year’s 秘密保護法 (Official Secrets Bill) and this year’s 安保法 (Security Bill) provoked major ongoing demonstrations around the country, while the slow-but-sure restarting of nuclear power plants continues to be opposed by a significant majority of voters and provokes headline-grabbing local protest with each restart. Meanwhile the much-vaunted “Abenomics” economic programme has had a mixed reaction from economists (it’s largely only managed to crank the levers of monetary stimulus, and has failed miserably to provide the kind of economic reform originally promised), and definitely a failing grade from voters, many of whom have seen their real incomes drop precipitously in recent years and almost none of whom say they have felt any benefit from Abenomics. In poll after poll, the Japanese people hate the Abe cabinet’s policies – they don’t like the bills it passes, don’t support its broad agenda on security and energy, and don’t feel any benefit from its economic policy. Yet in the same polls, they continue to support the cabinet, and the LDP, at a remarkably high rate.

This is only a puzzle if you consider the government in isolation; look at it in the context of Japan’s opposition parties, and it makes perfect sense. To describe the opposition as a disaster would be far too kind; the opposition is a miserable, useless catastrophe. The Democratic Party of Japan, the main party of opposition, has no coherent policy platform and almost zero visibility on key issues; other parties such as the Japan Innovation Party are consumed with in-fighting, and opposition parties split, merge and split again with a weary regularity that makes it perfectly apparent that their membership are far more concerned with shuffling for position and status in a tiresome game of musical chairs for avaricious old men, than in actually representing a constituency or, god forbid, a coherent ideology. Even as the government faced widespread resistance from the populace in passing legislation like the Security Bill, the main opposition parties were distracted with the side-show, the cat-herding pipe-dream, of assembling a broad opposition alliance. It was once said (by one of his own backbenchers, no less) of the well-meaning but slightly hapless Irish opposition leader Alan Dukes, “if it was raining soup, the man would be out in the street with a fork”; it rained miso soup for Japan’s opposition in recent months, and they all ran out into the streets holding chopsticks. If the Japanese electorate dislike Abe Shinzo’s policy platform, they despise the opposition, and have supported the Abe cabinet largely on the basis that any alternative to the LDP is, at the moment, nigh-on unthinkable.

Even so, the Abe cabinet’s approval rating sank to a low (albeit still far higher than justified by support for its policies) ebb when the Security Bill was passed, so; quick! Pull the reshuffle lever! Out with the old, in with the new, and back in with some of the old. There are new faces in some quite prominent positions (I plan to write a little later this week about former pro wrestler Hase Hiroshi’s appointment as Education Minister, which is already shaping up to be very interesting), some hints about which factions are in Abe’s good books, and lots of speculation about what it all means for the theory that he’s going to anoint fanatical right-winger and historical revisionist Inada Tomomi as his successor; she would be Japan’s first female prime minister, marking a real “two steps forward, three steps back” for the progressive cause. The conclusion of most commentators, incidentally, is that leaving her in charge of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, rather than promoting her to a more public cabinet position, suggests that she’s not the shoo-in for the succession many had assumed.

The lever duly pulled, the new Abe Cabinet (“Abe 2.2”, perhaps, as it’s the second cabinet of his second run at the prime minister’s job) sat back and waited for the approval bump… Which never came. Approval did rebound slightly from the level it hit after the security bill passed, but even in the most optimistic of polls, this looked like a dead cat bounce – the natural rebound when even the most moribund of objects hits a hard floor – rather than a boost from the reshuffle. In approval terms, at least, the reshuffle has been a total write-off; perhaps reflecting the increasingly presidential style of Japanese prime ministers since Koizumi Junichiro in the early 2000s, public attention seems focused on Abe himself, and cabinet approval rating is inexorably tied to his person, regardless of the cabinet with which he surrounds himself.

This is troubling for Abe, who has managed – largely off the back of the weakness and disarray both of the opposition and of the much-diminished LDP internal factions – to stay in power for almost three years, far longer than most Japanese Prime Ministers of recent decades. It seemingly removes from him one of the key weapons in the Prime Minister’s arsenal, rendering the reshuffle useless for juicing public opinion numbers – though of course, it may simply be that this reshuffle was handled incompetently, being carried out while the public was still angry over the passage of the Security Bill, and thus burdening the new cabinet with that anger rather than giving them a fresh start. On the other hand, it also reinforces the importance of Abe Shinzo himself, suggesting that while Prime Ministers may still fall victim to weak cabinet support ratings, the era of the disposable and nigh-on faceless Japanese Prime Minister (honestly, even political science academics here struggle to recall some of the nobodies who have held the office in recent decades) is over. Abe will be toppled only when someone within the LDP is strong, prominent and supported enough to topple him; the old system, in which a Prime Minister could be deposed by a broad group of plotting factions without a figurehead, and replaced with whatever doddering codger they felt well-disposed towards that week, is no longer viable. This will make it easier for the PM to see threats coming, the most obvious of them at the moment being Ishiba Shigeru, the hugely ambitious if questionably competent Regional Revitalisation Minister who recently launched his own LDP faction, seemingly with a view to challenging Abe for party leadership in the future. If Abe’s approval slides heavily again (the next big challenge is next year’s double header of House of Councillors elections and TPP ratification), it’s from Ishiba that the only truly credible attack on his position would come – and until the opposition parties get their house in order and start providing a believable alternative, that internal LDP drama is, once again, the only way that Japan’s government is going to see change or reform.

Security bill passes; what next for Japanese politics?

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?

Oh! What a Lovely War Bill

JSDF troops with their flag

Today, Japan’s lower house of government, the House of Representatives (broadly equivalent to the House of Commons in the UK, and rather less equivalent to the US Congress), has passed bills permitting Japanese military forces to participate in action against nations which are not directly attacking Japan. This will be the first time since the end of the Second World War almost exactly 70 years ago that Japan has permitted itself this right, and represents one of the largest changes to the nation’s security policy since its independence was restored by the Allied occupation in 1952.

It’s not a popular change. Opinion polls suggest that fewer than 30% of Japanese people support the bill, opposition parties have protested that the bill is being railroaded through parliament, and tens of thousands of people have gathered at rallies in Tokyo over the past few weeks to protest the legislation. It’s not popular with constitutional scholars, either; Japan’s post-war constitution, authored by Americans but supported by a majority of the Japanese people, renounces war and the use of force in international disputes, and forbids the maintenance of “war potential”. Last year, the government sought and achieved the latest in a series of revisions to the legal interpretation of that article (Article 9), which would allow the Japan Self-Defence Forces to participate not only in direct self-defence of the Japanese nation, but in “collective self-defence” – the right to assist Japan’s treaty allies should one of them be attacked, even if that attack is not directly on Japan itself. Today’s bill is the next step in pushing that change into law, but constitutional scholars remain convinced that the reinterpretation has stretched Article 9 past breaking point; a large majority of them have come out against the bill.

The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, knows it’s not a popular bill. After it passed the committee stage yesterday, he commented that the government has failed to explain the bill adequately to the public and will need to work on that in future; it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at such a statement, but this sort of cart-before-horse, father-knows-best approach is pretty much de rigeur for politicians all over the world when matters of national security or international relations are being discussed. It doesn’t excuse such behaviour, but it’s nonetheless worth pointing out that this doesn’t make Abe a fascist or evil; it just means that he’s a politician.

Besides, popularity barely matters. Though it’s taking its toll on the government’s approval rating, the LDP and its coalition partner, Komeito, could pass the bill through the Diet by themselves, having secured a large majority in the hastily called general election last December. Opposition politicians have resorted to frankly bizarre measures to register their displeasure, holding aloft placards during committee sessions and physically mobbing rival politicians in scenes bordering on fist-fights. The refrain, over and over, is that a bill with such low public support cannot be passed through the Diet in this manner.

This is, for better or worse, utter nonsense. The public does not support this legislation, but it hasn’t been sprung upon them as a surprise; changing the basis on which Japan’s military participates in international security is one of Shinzo Abe’s most long-held and clearly expressed desires, and the constitutional re-interpretation enabling this new law was passed before the general election last December. That election returned Abe’s LDP and their Komeito partners with a slightly larger majority than they had before. Any government, anywhere in the world, would look at that situation and conclude that whatever the public’s misgivings about this specific legislation, the LDP’s mandate to pass it is unarguable. Opposition parties were unable to turn the public’s dislike of Abe’s military ambitions into votes last December, so what aspect of democracy (as distinct from constitutionalism), exactly, is Abe riding roughshod over by passing a bill he’s openly been promoting since 2012?

It’s not that I don’t understand the anger and fear surrounding the bill, much of it focused on Abe himself. For all that he has learned to shut up about his own revisionist views of Japan’s Imperial history and decidedly neo-conservative ideas about how to make Japan’s society “beautiful” again (much of which is, as with neo-conservatism in general, little more than Fascism Lite with far less snazzy uniforms), he has been altogether less successful at getting other members of the LDP to do likewise. A great deal of the protest around the bill seems to be based not so much on fear of what collective self-defence will mean for Japan, but on a broader fear that Abe and his party want to move Japan away from the post-war pacifist consensus; to promote an ultra-nationalist agenda through schools and universities, to construct and impose rigid concepts of morality and “traditional” notions of societal duty, to adopt a more aggressive stance on the world stage and generally to return Japan to its more oppressive pre-war status quo. Opponents, who have dubbed the security legislation as Abe’s “War Bill” (which I use entirely facetiously in the title of this post), see that bill as being a huge step along the way to that objective.

They’re not wrong about Abe’s objective; you only need to read the man’s own words, in his book “Towards a Beautiful Country“, or look at the wish-list of constitutional change he and his LDP colleagues came up with before he came back to power in 2012. A man’s personal ideas and the policies he pursues in government may not always align, but it’s not unreasonable to fear the objectives of a man who has clearly laid out intentions to change his nation’s society in dangerous and worrying ways, and whose rule in government is effectively unopposed due to chaos within the ranks of opposition parties.

This broad unease only lends itself to making the protests and opposition to today’s bills seem fractured, discordant and uncoordinated. Part of the problem is that taken on its own merits, the bill is entirely reasonable. One may argue for or against the need for Japan to change the terms on which it engages with its security partners, but there are a great many logical and reasonable grounds for the claim that collective self-defence is required by the present international environment. For Japan to continue to exist securely under the US defence umbrella, even as the global influence of the US is increasingly challenged and the broad security environment of Asia remains unstable, seems untenable. A more even relationship in which Japan’s substantial military prowess forms part of the deterrent to conflict across Asia, and in which Japanese troops play a normalised part in activities such as UN Peace-Keeping Operations (as those of other militarily neutral countries, such as Ireland, do without difficulty), has much to recommend it. Ranked against that, protests claiming that this “War Bill” represents a rise of militarism – despite the fact that even with its implementation, Japan’s military engagement will remain pretty much the most restricted of any developed nation – are all too easy to dismiss.

Herein, perhaps, lies the core dichotomy and problem of Shinzo Abe’s leadership of Japan. His person suggests that he should be a disastrous leader – he is an unrepentant (if recently wisely silent) historical revisionist with barely-concealed fantasies of a return to the social and political order of Imperial Japan. His ultimate goal is a complete rewrite of Japan’s constitution which would dispense with its pacifist and human-rights oriented nature in favour of a stricter, more duty-focused constitution which he believes to better reflect “traditional” Japanese values. In some ways, this personality has indeed been disastrous; relations with China and South Korea, for example, deteriorated sharply under Abe’s leadership, though it’s unfair to lay the entire blame for that at his doorstep when the leadership of both of those countries demonstrated equal if not greater intransigence and historical dishonesty. In other ways, though, this personality and the stances it has created have been almost exactly what Japan needs; Abe’s policies have been pushed through with a force and vigour that has been sorely lacking in Japan for decades, and have seen kickstarts to employment, to inflation, to the role of women, to the broader economy, and to necessary adjustments to the nation’s international role. In each case, one can argue that Abe has pursued the right policy for the wrong reason – often horrifyingly wrong – but nonetheless, he’s achieved more in his years in power thus far than anyone since Junichiro Koizumi in the mid-2000s (and Koizumi, I’d argue, pursued the wrong policies for the right reasons, which is far worse).

Abe’s personality and his party’s regular gaffes colour everything they touch. Even as a supporter of its content, I will find it deeply uncomfortable to watch the “war bill” pass today, with the storm-in-a-teacup of protest making little or no odds to its progression through the various stages of government. I will find it even more uncomfortable if the Supreme Court, a far less aggressive and independent branch of government in Japan than in the USA, permits the bill to stand despite its extremely dubious constitutionality. I’d like to see Japan’s security position change, but I’d like to see it done right – with a constitutional amendment by popular vote, following a proper campaign of education and outreach about the reasons for its necessity. When a politician’s vigour and force extends to simply ignoring constitutional legalities, then no amount of democratic mandate (which, again, the LDP unquestionably possesses at present) can justify their actions. But perhaps that’s Abe in a nutshell; doing the right things for awful reasons, in awful ways, and making even those who support the actions uncomfortable along the way. He may be the most effective prime minister Japan has had in decades; he may simultaneously be the worst leader the nation has had in the post-war era.