Japan's high-flying Shinzo Abe suddenly faces real headwinds

The prime minister's plan to boost the military's role is running into constitutional questions, and his political allies aren't helping the effort. Some say resignation is now in the realm of possibility.

Yuya Shino/Reuters
Protesters holding placards participated in a rally against Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration in Tokyo on Saturday. Hundreds of people joined the demonstration. The placard in the center reads, in Japanese, "Love the war" (top) and "Reaper Prime Minister" (bottom).

Just weeks ago it seemed as if little could stop Shinzo Abe.

The Japanese leader, fresh from a historic speech to the US Congress, appeared strong, decisive, and – most of all – ready to enable his country's armed forces to take their first offensive role outside Japan in seven decades.

Abe’s ruling coalition has large enough majorities in both houses of the Diet to pass laws that would allow soldiers to fight alongside allies on foreign soil for the first time since the end of World War II.

The moment seemed ripe to start defining Mr. Abe’s tenure as an assertive new kind of prime minister.

But Abe, whose grandfather was a prominent figure in Japan’s wartime cabinet, now faces real opposition.

Mounting public disapproval, sharp questions by constitutional experts, and a storm created by an extraordinary attack on the media by Abe’s own allies have rattled the conservative leader – and may yet trigger his resignation.

The controversy centers on a series of bills to reinterpret – but not actually revise – Article 9 of Japan’s postwar Constitution, which forbids its military to engage in collective self-defense.

Abe’s policies could give Japanese forces the right to fight alongside US forces, provided the conflicts are defined as a threat to Japan’s own national security.

Defending against new threats

Abe has invested considerable political capital in recasting Japan’s strictly defensive posture of the past 70 years. He wants an Army better prepared to defend against new threats from Islamist terrorism, an expansionist China, a nuclear-armed North Korea, or other threats that any normal nation would need to challenge.

During his visit to the White House and Congress in April, Abe promised to ensure the bills’ passage by the end of the summer. Pentagon officials who want Japan to play a more active role in bilateral security ties were delighted.

At home, though, opposition to Abe in a nation that became deeply pacifist after the war, has intensified.

Approval ratings for Abe's cabinet fell to 47 percent, down three points from May, according to a new poll by the Nikkei business paper.

Many voters cited the security legislation as the source of their discontent. Some 56 percent opposed ending the ban on collective self-defense. Only 26 percent were in favor; 81 percent said Abe had yet to properly explain the bills.

Earlier, three scholars invited by Abe’s own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to testify before a Diet committee veered off message in front of the cameras to say the proposed changes would violate the Constitution. The view is shared by 132 of 151 academics just surveyed by Asahi TV.

Then there is ongoing bullying of the media by Abe supporters. Over the weekend, the government was accused of attacking press freedom after MPs loyal to Abe trained their sights on negative coverage of the security bills. One lawmaker called on corporations to pull their ads from sections of the media. (The reaction caused one of the MPs to be sacked as leader of the LDP’s youth wing, and three others to be reprimanded.)

Growing disarray in Abe camp

Senior party figures warned that similar disruptions could derail the bills altogether. "One careless mistake could become a fatal one," the LDP’s secretary general, Sadakazu Tanigaki, told reporters.

Another MP told Kyodo News that his wayward colleagues had “done things that could affect the deliberations of the bills at an important time.”

Opposition parties sense an opportunity to use growing disarray in the Abe camp to prevent lawmakers from moving to a vote before the prime minister’s September deadline.

Closer scrutiny of the bills has prompted questions about the exact circumstances under which Japanese troops could fight overseas – questions that Abe’s critics say he has failed to answer.

Under pressure to leave more time for scrutiny, Abe extended the current Diet session to Sept. 27.

Whatever happens to the bills, persuading voters that they are constitutionally watertight is an “impossible task,” says Koichi Nakano, a professor of politics at Sophia University in Tokyo.

“The last resort for the government would be to fan fears of Chinese expansionism and other security threats and argue that those who insist on protecting the Constitution would fail to protect the country,” he says.

Prof. Nakano believes that rather than buying himself time, Abe’s decision to extend the Diet session could backfire, since it would give a newly energized opposition more time.

“It is likely that [the LDP’s] performance will continue to give the critics the ammunition to point out that the bills are not only unconstitutional, but also full of flaws and inconsistencies,” Nakano says.

Abe, though, has some allies among constitutional experts. Osamu Nishi, professor emeritus at Komazawa University, said the proposed security changes were "clearly within the allowable range" of the Constitution because they placed limits on Japan’s right to engage in collective self-defense.

Akira Momochi, a professor at Nihon University, said that coming to the defense of an ally under attack, even when Japan is itself is not attacked, is the "inherent right" of any country under international law.

Ultimately, Abe could settle for a quid pro quo by offering his resignation in return for safe passage of the legislation, says Nakano.

“I think that a scenario in which Abe is kicked out of power before the end of the year is now within the realm of possibility,” he adds. 

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