Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to free Japanese troops to fight in foreign conflicts for the first time since World War II won approval Thursday in the lower house of parliament, even as tens of thousands of people chanted protests outside and opposition lawmakers walked out.
The new security laws devised by Mr. Abe essentially sidestep Japan’s 70-year old pacifist Constitution, and would allow its troops to fight abroad and alongside foreign forces – Japan is a US military ally – wherever Japan's national interest is directly affected.
For Tokyo, China is increasingly defined as a security threat. Mr. Abe today described the new laws as “absolutely necessary because the security situation surrounding Japan is growing more severe,” The New York Times reports.
Japanese planes recently conducted military maneuvers alongside Filipino forces in the South China Sea, near areas that China claims. While the US military is committed to defend Japan in case of attack, Japanese leaders fear that commitment won't apply to lower level cases and territorial disputes that exist in a so-called “gray zone,” such as clashes in the oceans that Japan sees as too offensive or challenging to ignore.
In April, Abe told a joint session of the US Congress that he expected to pass the laws by “this summer.” A conservative who is seen as trying to reawaken Japan’s national pride, Abe was elected in 2012 and has put his stamp on Japan's economy and military posture.
Opposition lawmakers walked out of Thursday's vote in the lower house of parliament, reports the Los Angeles Times. As many as 60,000 opponents of the draft bills held protests outside the building.
Yet while Abe’s ruling coalition has easily enough votes to pass the bills even if they are rejected in the upper house, the legislation remains unpopular among ordinary Japanese. Today's protest in Tokyo was the largest public demonstration in Japan since the Fukushima nuclear incident in 2011. Some 90 percent of Japan’s legal scholars say the new Self-Defense Force laws would be unconstitutional, according to multiple surveys.
In the lower house today, lawmakers held up signs in the legislature reading “No to Abe politics.”
Bloomberg News quotes a leading Abe political opponent:
“Prime Minister Abe should admit that he has failed to gain public understanding for the government plan and withdraw it immediately,” said Katsuya Okada, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan. “There has not been enough debate about what kind of country we want to be.”
Some analysts say Abe is heading into a political dynamic strikingly similar to that of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, a prime minister forced to step down after fighting for similar security laws.
"Political veterans are starting to predict that, like his grandfather (Nobusuke) Kishi, he may achieve his goal but have to resign," said independent political analyst Minoru Morita.
Kishi, a wartime cabinet minister who was premier from 1957 to 1960, resigned 55 years ago to the day, on July 15, 1960, because of a public furor after pushing a revised U.S.-Japan security pact through parliament.
Sheila Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations told The New York Times that while the US supports a more robust Japanese military presence, “a deeply divided Japanese public over alliance cooperation is not the outcome U.S. policy makers hoped for.”
Japanese citizens are deeply concerned about vague interpretations of the new laws that would allow troops to go into wars in the Middle East, for example, where they feel they do not belong, reports The Wall Street Journal.
The most contentious aspect of the legislation is allowing Japanese troops to come to the rescue of allies under attack, even if Japan itself isn’t attacked. That involves reinterpreting Japan’s Constitution, which limits the military’s role to self-defense.
Abe’s approval ratings have dropped sharply since the legislation was introduced, and an Asahi Shimbun poll today shows 56 percent opposed to the bill, with 26 percent in favor.