The House of Representatives, the lower house of the National Diet of Japan just passed legislation comprising 11 controversial bills pushed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that will drastically change the country’s security laws. All that is required now is the approval of the upper house which is widely expected to pass the legislation as well. The changes to Japan’s security laws will allow the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to take on more roles overseas, roles which existing laws in Japan have prevented them from doing so since World War Two. There is widespread opposition in Japan to the changes while regionally, China and South Korea have voiced concern. These bills are part of a larger campaign by Abe to make Japan’s foreign and security policy more active and open to foreign engagement.
Japan’s security laws: The Bills
The post-war Constitution of Japan includes Article 9 prevents Japan from having armed forces capable of waging offensive war and restricts the use of force to self-defense. Abe has sought to revise the laws so to allow the JSDF to take on greater roles in collective self-defense, a role which is currently banned. This is critical for Japan as currently it is limited to how it can support its alliance partner the U.S. in the event of a conflict. The new legislation would allow for greater cooperation between the JSDF and the U.S. military which can come in the form of logistical support and in select circumstances, armed backup in international conflicts. Also, the legislation will make it easier for Japan to send its forces to participate in UN backed missions.
Citing the growing military power of China, regional instability, and using the January murder of two Japanese hostages by ISIS, Abe has argued that changes to the defense laws are necessary in light of new threats. After the Thursday vote Abe commented, “These laws are absolutely necessary because the security situation surrounding Japan is growing more severe.”
Fortunately for Abe, his party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partners in the lower house hold a two-thirds majority, enough needed to approve the bills Thursday morning. Votes against the bills were restricted to members of the small Japan Restoration Party as most opposition members walked out in protest before the vote occurred. The bills should pass in the upper house which has 60 days to rule on them as that body is also dominated by the LDP and its partners.
On Wednesday night outside of Japan’s parliament, a large protest in opposition to the bills passing in committee took place with over 100,000 people taking part according to organizers. As the full house vote took place Thursday morning, protests were significantly smaller due to intermittent downpours from Typhoon Nangka. Meanwhile during the vote, opposition lawmakers chanted “nay, nay, nay” while some held posters saying “No to Abe politics”.
Abe does have significant opposition in Japan and these security bills are not helping boost his favorability. He is known for his right-wing nationalist views which are at odds with the leadership that has previously governed Japan. According to numerous surveys, over 60 percent of voters in Japan oppose the bills while support of Abe’s government fell to around 40 percent early this month. The latest poll by the leading Asahi newspaper has his support rate at only 39 percent.
An overwhelming percent of Japanese constitutional scholars according to surveys believe the new legislation violates Article 9. If the legislation is passed in the upper house and made into law, it is uncertain though if it will be declared unconstitutional by judges as historically, the judiciary in Japan has been unwilling to overrule the government on national security matters.
Following the horrors of World War Two where an imperialist Japan waged war throughout the Pacific and tremendous toll that took in human life and property, Japan has sought a pacifist policy ever since. Such a policy is essentially dictated by the Constitution. Fear of military intervention elsewhere is a prime concern of the Japanese people and so any change to the Constitution that would allow for it has strong opposition.
China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying reacted to the passage of the bills by questioning if Japan was “abandoning its pacifist policies”. He stated “We solemnly urge the Japanese side to draw hard lessons from history, stick to the path of peaceful development, respect the major security concerns of its Asian neighbors, and refrain from jeopardizing China’s sovereignty and security interests or crippling regional peace and stability.”
The state-run People’s Daily ran a front-page commentary accusing Japan of giving into U.S. pressure to offer more support to the latter’s pivot to Asia. It noted that if the bills are eventually passed into law, that they would become Japan’s “historical shame”. The more nationalistic Global Times called Abe “drunk on his own ideals” and that China is not an enemy to Japan while adding that “China is capable of dealing Japan a fatal blow.”
Right now tensions are high between Japan and China. Japan is increasing its presence in the South China Sea and conducting exercises with the Philippines which China opposes. Beijing does not want to see Japan involve itself in a dispute which it has no claim to and see’s Tokyo’s willingness to expand alliances in the region as a way to further build opposition to China.
The Yonhap news agency in South Korea quoted the foreign ministry as saying Japan should “stick to the spirit of the pacifist constitution”. South Korea and Japan, both U.S. allies, have shaky relations primarily stemming from issues related to World War Two. The two countries also share an island dispute that from time to time further exacerbates the relationship.
It is widely expected that the legislation will pass the upper house and be made into law. When it does, it will represent the most sweeping change to Japan’s security laws since the Constitution was created. Despite widespread opposition, Abe is intent on moving forward. He believes that Japan has been for too long constrained by its own laws in taking a more active role in the world and even in its own security and that of its closest allies. Fears of a new militarist Japan reminiscent of Imperial Japan are unfounded though in the region, the events of World War Two are not forgotten. The truth is as one of the leading economies, Japan does need to take a more active role in the world. When China is expanding its military by leaps and bounds and provoking neighbors, is Japan the country East Asia should be concerned about?