Tokyo Report

Japan’s Defense Reforms and Shinzo Abe’s Image Problem

Japan’s prime minister has an image problem — and it stems from his signature national security legislation.

Japan’s Defense Reforms and Shinzo Abe’s Image Problem
Credit: Shinzo Abe image via 360b /

During his address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in April, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talked about the national security legislation package that his government was then about to introduce to the Diet. He explained that this legislation aimed to make “the cooperation between the U.S. military and Japan’s Self Defense Forces even stronger, and the alliance still more solid, providing credible deterrence for the peace in the region.” Calling the reform package the “first of its kind and a sweeping one in our post-war history,” he declared that his government intended to enact the legislation “by this coming summer.” That was only six weeks ago. Today, Abe will struggle to get the legislation approved by the Diet this year.

The legislation package — which ultimately amounts to creating one new law and revising 10 existing laws — was already controversial when it was first introduced to the Diet. But the political atmosphere surrounding the legislation began to shift on June 4, when three well-respected constitutional scholars were invited to testify in front of the Commission of the Constitution in the House of Representatives. Asked to respond to the questions on the security legislation package that has been submitted by the Abe government, the scholars unanimously responded that the government-proposed legislation is “unconstitutional”.

A public opinion poll taken by the Yomiuri Shimbun immediately following the media reports about the constitutional scholars’ statements does not favor Abe’s desire to pass these reforms anytime soon, certainly not by June 24 when the current session of the Diet is supposed to end. Although the Diet session is expected to be extended well into the summer (some say it could go until mid-August), almost 60 percent of the poll respondents were against the enactment of the legislation package by the end of the current Diet session. Abe’s approval rating has also begun to slip.

It is clear that the public is upset with Abe and his cabinet for rushing these bills through the Diet without spending enough time to help them understand what kind of effect these legislative changes will have on Japan’s national security policy. It does not help that the proposed legislation package is extremely complicated — as the reforms consist of one new law and the revisions to ten existing laws, one needs to understand at minimum 11 laws (plus all the other minor adjustments that need to be made to the already-existing laws) to fully understand the proposed package.

In reality, despite the hype, what the proposed legislative changes amount to actually resembles nothing like a “sweeping change” in the way Japan can use its Self-Defense Forces (SDF). Rather, this is another small step forward so that the JSDF may, if the Diet so approves, be able to participate in multinational efforts to preserve peace and stability (such as joint patrols in the South China Sea), to provide rear-area support to multinational forces that is consistent with international standards, and streamline the process of mobilizing the SDF when tension rises in Japan’s vicinity. If anything, the biggest problem with the proposed package of legislation is that, with Diet approval either required or preferred in most cases, Japan will still be unable to respond to crises in a“seamless” manner, as originally intended. In short, the changes that can be anticipated from the proposed legislation are relatively modest — this is certainly not the “war legislation” some of Abe’s harshest critics make it out to be.

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However, such a reality is now being lost in the face of growing anxiety over the proposed bills. The LDP leadership’s dismissive reaction to the constitutional scholars’ comments has not been helpful, either. Rather than alleviating public concerns, their reactions have been fueling the perception that the Abe government is not interested in listening to the concerns that are expressed, and that the party will not hesitate to steamroll the opposition with the overwhelming majority its ruling coalition now enjoys in both chambers of the Diet.

Practically speaking, the proposed legislation will most likely pass. Opposition parties simply do not have the numbers to stop it. However, the highly-charged and confrontational process through which the law will be debated and passed will have a lasting impact. At minimum, the prevailing perception of the ruling coalition steamrolling the opposition will motivate the public to “punish” the ruling coalition in next year’s Upper House election, possibly weakening Abe’s political standing. It may also constrain the Japanese government’s ability to actually implement these laws long after Abe leaves the office.

So clearly, Abe has got an image problem.  And it is unclear how he can get rid of it.