Abe win points to continued pressure on N. Korea – and Japan's pacifist Constitution

Prime Minister Abe's party won a snap election on Sunday, suggesting approval for his firm stance on North Korea. But he faces a steep climb getting public support for a long-sought plan to revise the Constitution's constraints on the military.

Isse Kato/Reuters
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, smiles during a news conference after Japan’s lower house election, at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo Oct. 22.

In the hours after North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan early on the morning of Aug. 29, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe started calming a frightened nation. 

Speaking on national television, the prime minister told viewers that he “was prepared to take all measures to protect people’s lives.” He said his government had “lodged a firm protest” to Pyongyang and requested an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

It was the kind of reassurance many people in Japan had wanted to hear: tough, but not bellicose. When the North Koreans hurled a second missile over Japan a month later, Prime Minister Abe issued another strong rebuke. Meanwhile, his approval rating rose to 50 percent, rebounding from a record low in July after a series of domestic scandals.

That response – along with the existence of a weak and fractured opposition – gave Abe the confidence to call a snap election on Sept. 25, a year earlier than expected. On Sunday, his conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a commanding victory – albeit with the second-lowest turnout since World War II, amid a powerful typhoon. 

Retaining the LDP’s two-thirds supermajority in Japan’s lower house of parliament could be a sign of success for its hard line on North Korea. But the consequences for defense policy, a fraught topic in postwar Japan, could go further, allowing Abe to continue his pursuit of revising the country's pacifist Constitution.

Even with the votes he needs in parliament, however, Abe and his party still face the challenge of winning over a reluctant public. 

“The LDP may be able to do it over the next year or two,” says Amy Catalinac, an assistant professor of politics at New York University who studies national security issues in Japan. “But it's not a foregone conclusion by any means.”

Persuading pacifists

Japan’s Constitution was written by American occupiers after its defeat in World War II, and calls for the renunciation of war in a clause known as Article 9. Abe and his nationalist supporters have advocated revising it for years. Their aim has been to remove any doubt about the legitimacy of Japan’s military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, by amending the much-beloved pacifist clause. 

Before Sunday’s election, Abe’s ruling coalition already had a two-thirds majority in the less powerful upper house. Now he has solidified his support in the lower house, boosting his chances of winning another three-year term next September as leader of the LDP. If he wins he will become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, giving him until 2021 to achieve his longtime goal of amending the Constitution.

But in addition to getting approval by two-thirds of parliament, any change to the Constitution must also be ratified in a national referendum. Experts say getting the public on his side remains a steep hill for Abe to climb. 

Read literally, Article 9 bans Japan from having a standing military – a fact that hasn’t stopped successive governments from interpreting it to mean that the country is allowed to have one exclusively for self-defense. Abe has said he simply wants to make that status explicit.

Critics say that such a change would strike at the heart of the pacifist Constitution. They argue that it could lead to an even broader definition of self-defense than Abe has already achieved. In 2015, he helped pass legislation that allows Japan to engage in collective self-defense, or fighting for its allies when they come under enemy attack. Parliament passed the law based on a reinterpretation of the Constitution, rather than a formal revision.

Dr. Catalinac says the North Korean threat has done little to change people’s opinions about Abe’s proposed amendment. Although the LDP was able to capitalize on voters’ desire for stability, turning that into support for a constitutional revision is a considerable leap. Polls show that voters are split on whether they would approve such a measure.

“The public is not convinced that Japan needs to revise the Constitution in order to deal with North Korea,” Catalinac says. “There are people in Japan who support more dialogue, and then there are people in Japan who support more pressure.”

So far, Abe has stuck with trying to raise pressure on North Korea amid its repeated missile tests and threats to “sink” Japan into the sea. He’s called on the international community to remain united and enforce sanctions while also pushing for a trilateral meeting between Japan, China, and South Korea.

“As I promised in the election, my imminent task is to firmly deal with North Korea,” Abe told reporters in Tokyo on Sunday night. “For that, strong diplomacy is required.” 

Abe’s strategy – viewed as hawkish in Japan – has received broad support from a public that is increasingly on edge about Pyongyang’s behavior. Sixty-one percent of respondents to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last spring said increasing economic sanctions was the better option for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program. Only 25 percent of respondents said deepening ties would be more effective.

A crucial alliance

Fears of a North Korean attack have rarely, if ever, been higher in Japan. Many towns are preparing for the possibility with evacuation drills. Earlier this month, authorities on the northern island of Hokkaido published a manga comic book that explains how to survive a missile strike.

All this has pressed Abe to maintain a close relationship with US President Trump. Japan has been largely dependent on the United States for its self-defense since the end of World War II. By carefully managing the mercurial American president, Abe has attempted to alleviate another source of unease among the Japanese public: the future of the US-Japan alliance.

Yet Abe has been able to do only so much in the realm of public opinion. A separate Pew Research Center poll released last week found that more than twice as many Japanese worry that the alliance will deteriorate during the Trump administration (41 percent) as believe it will improve (17 percent). Thirty-four percent of respondents said they expected the relationship to stay about the same and 9 percent said they didn’t know.

Abe and Trump will have the chance to improve public confidence in the alliance when Trump arrives in Japan on Nov. 5 at the start of his 12-day trip across Asia. Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says North Korea will undoubtedly be at the top of their agenda.

“Abe has lined up very closely with the Trump administration’s approach to putting more and more pressure on North Korea to try to get it back to the negotiating table,” Ms. Smith says, adding that she expects to see little controversy when the two leaders meet. “They're pretty much on the same page. The Abe cabinet is grateful that this US administration wants to be tough on this issue, because they want to be tough on this issue.”  

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