Tokyo Report

The Domestic Hurdles for Japan’s Defense Reforms

With Abe’s U.S. visit over, the next task is getting the domestic security reforms he promised while in Washington.

The Domestic Hurdles for Japan’s Defense Reforms
Credit: Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Washington, D.C., last week, he promised the passage of security-related legislation that will help implement the new bilateral defense guidelines, which have been revised for the first time in 18 years, and make the limited exercise of collective self-defense possible within the year. However, this promise has stirred a hornet’s nest back home, where opposition parties are furious that he would make such a pledge even before the proposed legislation has been submitted to the Diet.

Members of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) have already expressed anger at Abe’s disregard for the legislative branch by dictating a timeline. DPJ leader Katsuya Okada condemned Abe, saying, “At a stage when the legislation has not even been submitted, it is unheard-of to make a promise in a foreign nation about the timing for the passage of such important bills. … It shows extreme ignoring of the public and contempt for the Diet.” Other opposition parties, including the Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party have also criticized Abe, and even the Komeito, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) junior coalition party, seemed to be taken by surprise.

At a multi-partisan event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Takeshi Iwaya (LDP), former senior vice minister for foreign affairs, reemphasized Abe’s target to have the legislation passed by this summer. During his prepared remarks, he did not appear too concerned about domestic political opposition – though he did highlight how the proposed legislation was the culmination of two years of Abe’s developing security policies. Iwaya believes the proposed legislation is important to strengthen deterrence and that Abe is following a “realistic” and “balanced” path in light of the security environment surrounding Japan. Rather than domestic opposition, he was more worried that the legislation may raise expectations too high in the U.S., and cause concerns in neighboring countries.

However, Itsunori Onodera (LDP), former minister of defense, did not think that this legislation should cause too many problems in the region because it is purely intended for self-defense. He pointed to the “open” nature of Japan’s defense policy changes, especially the way in which Japan gives detailed explanations of any such changes to neighboring countries (e.g. China, South Korea and ASEAN countries). Since the purpose of these policy changes is deterrence, it would be self-defeating to not give such explanations.

While the LDP speakers did not dwell too long on the question of the domestic politics of security legislation, Seiji Maehara (DPJ), former minister for foreign affairs, previewed some of the main arguments that the DPJ is likely to use against the LDP-sponsored legislation: Is it really necessary? Is the Self-Defense Force really capable of all this? Has public understanding been obtained?

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Despite the foreign soil on which Abe set out his ambitious timeline – which lent itself well to criticism by his opponents – this is not the exercise of gaiatsu (external pressure) by the United States. The era of gaiatsu has been over since 2000, when the Nye-Armitage report was issued. The momentum for the most recent iteration of Japan’s security upgrade has been generated indigenously — not only by the current Abe government, but by the DPJ governments from which Abe has inherited many of the same priorities. Abe’s security agenda is not one that is being forced on to him by Washington, but one that Abe and many other politicians are embracing out of Japan’s own self-interest.

Though Abe and the LDP have a long path ahead to persuade the Japanese public, the necessity for security reform is real. The biggest pitfall for the government is to rush into it without first having adequately engaged opposition parties and citizens as part of the democratic process that all democracies should uphold.