There were huge protests over the weekend in Japan against legislation, approved in principle by the Abe cabinet in July, which will reinterpret the Japanese Constitution to permit the very limited exercise of collective self-defence. This fierce public opposition to the normalisation of Japan's Self Defence Forces highlights two connected problems for Prime Minister Abe.
The size and cross-sectional nature of the protests highlight a serious policy communication problem for the Japanese Government in general, and a particular problem for the Abe administration. There is a strong bipartisan consensus, supported by Japanese public opinion, that Japan faces a very serious and growing security threat from China and North Korea. As shown by the 2010 National Defense Program Guidelines released under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration, there also is strong bipartisan support for Japanese foreign and security policy to become much more focused on these neighbourhood threats, for a stronger US-Japan alliance and for Japan to play a more active alliance and regional security role.
But there is partisan disagreement on how to do this, with the leader of the DPJ joining the leader of the Japanese Communist Party at the protest rallies. The partisan disagreement is fuelled by the public's unwillingness to support a more active Japanese security role in general, and particularly changes like collective self-defense seen to undercut the totemic war-renouncing Article 9 in the Japanese Constitution.
Unfortunately, Abe, with his conservative, revisionist views and tense relations with much of the media, is not the leader to help bridge the gap between what policy and legal changes the Government thinks are necessary for Japanese security, and what many parts of Japanese society are willing to support. Rather, Abe is likely to widen or harden this gap that so frustrates Japanese security policymakers and those who want Japan to play a more active security role.
As the demonstrations show, Japan's battered opposition parties see an opportunity to wedge Abe on this issue. The media and governments in Seoul and Beijing likewise.
The protests, while large and loud, are not a significant political threat to Prime Minister Abe or his administration. Abe's position in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is rock-solid and it looks very likely that he will be re-elected unopposed as party leader this month. Second, the LDP faces no serious opposition party threat, and the popularity of Abe's cabinet has actually increased despite these mounting, headline-grabbing demonstrations, a slowing economy and an embarrassing flip-flop on the centrepiece stadium for the upcoming 2020 Olympics.
We should expect more demonstrations and denunciations inside and outside Japan, but the process of revising Japanese legislation to operationalise the limited right of collective self-defense seems as secure as Prime Minister Abe himself.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Christian c.