Japan’s Lower House Passes Defense Bills Amidst Protest, Shifting Regional Security Environment

by Dan Darling, International Military Markets Analyst, Forecast International.

Japan FlagTwo security bills that passed in the lower house of Japan’s legislature, the National Diet, on July 16 elicited a strong public reaction. The bills involve the reinterpretation and revision of existing laws while expanding the range of allowable activities for the nation’s military, the Self-Defense Forces (SDF).

For a nation steeped in pacifism following its defeat and post-conflict occupation in World War II, any loosening of the constraints imposed on Japan’s military under Article 9 of its U.S.-influenced Constitution provokes alarm in large segments of the population. This was indeed the case when the security bills – championed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – were approved by the Lower House’s Special Committee on Security Legislation on July 15, thus enabling them to be put to a vote in the lower chamber dominated by Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The move created an uproar sparking large demonstrations by up to 100,000 protestors outside the Diet building and prompted the major opposition parties in the legislature to walk out in protest.

The bills would – on the surface – appear to represent a sea-change in security approach from the post-war pacifism that Japan has adhered to since 1945. They would allow Japan’s SDF to provide logistical support for allied militaries engaged in military operations. More controversially, they would also allow the SDF to come to the aid of an ally when under attack, even when the hypothetical conflict is not directly linked to Japan’s own security.

These actions would thus fall under Prime Minister Abe’s call to grant the SDF flexibility to engage in “collective self-defense” – a crucial element of Abe’s governing platform since he returned to power in December 2012. While the more hysterical critics of the bills charge that they will lead the SDF down a headlong path toward a U.S.-led war, they are, in fact, aimed at bolstering the ability of Japan to form strategic alliances with its partners in the Asia-Pacific region at a time when China is seeking to upset the delicate balance of power in East and South Asia through muscular coercion.

While the critics are correct in seeing Japanese policy increasingly aligned with that of the U.S. (a strong proponent of Abe’s revision of the current “Law on a Situation in the Areas Surrounding Japan”), they are on less solid footing on the matter of strategic balancing as a means of avoiding conflict. Indeed, it is noteworthy that countries with hard memories of Imperial Japanese aggression – including the Philippines and Australia – are either eager to align with Japan or altogether unwilling to criticize its national security decisions.

More telling is that outside international media circles – where some view the oft-indelicate Abe as a hardline neo-imperialist – the only outcry over the legislation beyond Japan’s borders has been from China.

With passage in the lower house, the bills now move to the upper house, the House of Councillors, which has 60 days to pass them. Should the chamber fail to do this, Abe’s center-right LDP – which so far has had the support of its governing coalition partner Komeito – could use its majority to pass them with a two-thirds vote.

Should the bills become law by the end of the current legislative period on September 27, Abe will have created a window for Japan to begin the normalization in shaping its national security domain through alliances and defense cooperation. He will also have enabled Japan to adhere to its recently concluded U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines while keeping a promise made to the U.S. Congress that he would see the bills passed.

While pleasing to his U.S. ally, Abe’s success in promoting the bills has come at great political cost. His approval rating has continued to slide as he has sought to reinterpret the Constitution. Particularly galling in the public mind was the testimony by a constitutional scholar called upon by the LDP during a special committee meeting convened on June 4 to deliberate the security bills. That scholar, Yasuo Hasebe, testified that he had determined the Abe government’s reinterpretation of the Constitution to indeed be unconstitutional. That sparked a widespread current of protest that saw constitutional scholars, intellectuals, artists and local assemblies across the country denounce the Abe government’s attempt to ease the constitutional ban on the SDF’s ability to engage in collective self-defense.

For Shinzo Abe, he may soon find that rushing to pass impactful legislation without first seeking – or achieving – broad socio-political consensus has consequences in a democracy.

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