On September 18 (or in the early hours of September 19, Tokyo time), Japan’s legislature, the Diet, passed a set of 11 bills that will pave the way for a modest expansion of the role and capacity of the country’s military. There has been a heated public debate about the implications of these bills for Japan’s regional security role and for the operations of its Self-Defense Forces (SDF). Proponents of the legislation believe that the bills—which will alter the legal and institutional framework of Japan’s security policies; expand the role of the SDF in non-lethal activities, such as disaster relief; and permit Japanese forces to come to the aid of allies under certain strict conditions, in what is known as collective self-defense—will make Japan safer and a more useful partner to the United States. Critics, meanwhile, paint the new laws as “war bills,” which, they argue, will allow Japan to send the SDF to fight in foreign wars under the pretense of collective self-defense in violation of Japan’s pacifist constitution.
In this controversy, little attention has been paid to the consequences of the bills’ passage for Japan’s domestic politics. Those consequences will be serious indeed. Namely, the deliberations over the legislation have politicized security-related issues and severely depleted the political capital of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In turn, this could limit Abe’s chances of enacting other items on the ambitious agenda he laid out upon entering office in December 2012, such as structural reforms to the Japanese economy.
Constitutional Fault Lines
For most of the Cold War, Japanese domestic politics were largely a contest between the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Japan Socialist Party (JSP), which differed dramatically in their ideological positions. Whereas the LDP supported Japan’s alliance with the United States and was open to the revision of the pacifist clause in the Japanese constitution, the JSP supported unarmed neutrality and opposed Tokyo’s alliance with Washington. These divisions were highly apparent in the deliberations on security policy, in which the JSP’s preferred tactic was to rely on arguments related to constitutionality, rather than to engage the LDP in policy-driven debates.