Following final approval on September 19 of landscape-altering security legislation by the upper house of Japan’s parliament, the National Diet, the conservative government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is facing a sharp backlash, both at home and abroad. Considering the magnitude of the legislation as it relates to both Japan and its neighbors – many of which retain memories of attack and invasion by Imperial Japan in the first half of the 20th century – the reaction had long been expected.
But when the officially pacifist nation saw the cornerstone of its post-Imperial identity – the renunciation of war except in acts of self-defense – reinterpreted by the nationalist-leaning government, the reaction was swift, with thousands taking part in widespread protests and the threat of lawsuits arising from multiple corners.
The sense that the Abe government may have used up all its available political capital on such a controversial goal is pervasive, and rightly so. Added to that is the fact that Abe largely rode back to power in December 2012 upon a wave of economic concern and, with the country’s economy contracting by 1.2 percent during the second quarter of the current financial year, dark clouds definitely hang above the government.
Added to the internal backlash against the government is the expected reaction from China and both Koreas, each of which have historic grievances and ongoing territorial disputes over tiny islet groupings along their respective coastal perimeters. To now shift from expending so much focus on winning this particular domestic political battle to emphasizing diplomatic outreach with China will not be easy for the government by any stretch of the imagination.
Furthermore, with the new bills allowing Japan’s Self-Defense Force to provide logistical support for allied militaries engaged in military operations and, more crucially, allowing the SDF to come to the aid of an ally when under attack (one whose fighting does not necessarily have to involve defense of Japan, either), the possibility exists – however remote it may immediately seem – that the Japanese public will very well experience the plight of casualties returning home from foreign theaters of action. Should that occur, particularly in an instance where Japan’s own national security was not immediately threatened, the backlash might prove too significant for any government to bear.
Lost in the conversation, however, is that the U.S. has been a big proponent of the new security legislation and had long prodded Tokyo to assume a more balanced approach to its own defense and security arrangements. Even countries with their own hard memories of Imperial Japan’s aggression such as Australia and the Philippines are looking to move closer to Japan in terms of security cooperation.
All that said, the new legislation may prove difficult to implement in reality, as government officials will likely prove wary of dispatching troops into harm’s way, much less doing so at the first call to action by an ally. For now, Japan’s regional neighborhood remains at peace – a peace made uneasy by China’s growing military reach and confidence and North Korea’s unpredictability, but peace nonetheless. For the Abe government’s sake, it would be best if such a trend continues.
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