Last week, in a move that reversed a seventy-year-old precedent, the Japanese Diet, led by Premier Shinzo Abe, curtailed its constitutionally-mandated pacifism.
On September 18, 2015, late in the evening, the Diet passed legislation expanding the ability for the nation to engage in war for “collective self-defense.” Under the planned changes, Japan can now assume combat roles to aid their allies, namely the United States, even if Japan itself is at no risk of direct military attack. This comes amid massive protests (one protest outside the Diet numbered 13,000 protesters) against the legislation, culminating in an unprecedented brawl on the floor of the House of Representatives when some members of the opposing coalition tried to physically block the passage of the bill.
Article 9, possibly the best known provision in the Japanese Constitution, explicitly forbids Japan from both declaring aggressive war and establishing an offensive army. This prevented them from engaging in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the First Gulf War. However, due to the Korean War, the Allies, specifically the United States, allowed Japan to expand their defensive capabilities, forming the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). Until the turn of the century, the Japanese electorate was in favor of pacifism, since it both obliterated any chance of a destructive war on their soil, as well as allowed them to invest more into the domestic economy and bolster their economic miracle.
Abe, the head of the center-right Liberal Democratic Party and the ruling coalition in the House of Representatives, has been known for his hawkish behavior in the Diet since he was elected in 1993 (so much so that there is a lingering conspiracy theory that Abe was involved in the 1995 Tokyo sarin gas attacks as a way to remilitarize Japan). Previously, he was supportive of Japan taking a role within the Second Gulf War, and the continuation of American bases on Japanese soil, both drawing considerable controversy.
The passage of this legislation comes after a series of smaller actions which aimed to bolster Japan’s position in both East Asia and the world, especially amid the growing prestige and significance of both China and South Korea. First, there was legislation in July that expanded, albeit mildly, the role of the JSDF. After that, during the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender in World War II, Abe reluctantly apologized on behalf of Japan for the war crimes committed. The apology seemed so weak that when members of the imperial family made their apologies, some considered the apologies as passive-aggressive jabs against the nationalist prime minister. This comes on top of Abe escalating the crisis over the Senkaku Islands, which are being claimed both by Japan and China, and Abe refusing to stop going to the Yasukuni Shrine, which has enshrined over one thousand convicted war criminals.
It is safe to say that Abe’s end goal (as well as the militarist wing of the ruling coalition) is to strike out Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. However, under the Japanese Constitution, two-thirds of both houses within the Diet need to approve of the changes, which the coalition simply does not have, nor do they have the ability to convince enough members of the opposition to get the required supermajority. Not only that, but Abe’s approval ratings have slowly eroded due to the hawkish proposals. Since June, according to The Financial Times and CNBC, more people in Japan disapprove of his cabinet than approve of it since his return to the premiership in 2012.
With these two aspects in mind, it seems unlikely that Abe will achieve his goal of undoing Article 9. Still, with the passage of this legislation, the strained relationship between Japan and China could only get worse, and the diplomatic situation within East Asia could only get bleaker.