YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Japan’s dominant political party officially began its push this week to convince its skeptical coalition partner that the country should allow its troops to defend U.S. forces in combat.
The Liberal Democratic Party opened talks with New Komeito on a host of changes that Prime Minster Shinzo Abe says will strengthen Japan’s security.
New Komeito could conceivably cripple Abe’s goal of reinterpreting — without actually amending — Japan’s pacifist constitution, which Abe deems necessary for a plan that would allow Japanese forces to engage in collective self-defense with its closest allies.
Abe’s desired first step is an unopposed cabinet resolution, which would require a New Komeito official to agree, or at least to abstain.
After months of internal debate, New Komeito hasn’t signed on to the collective self-defense plan. It doesn’t appear likely to do so now, especially after the Soka Gakkai Buddhist organization, the party’s key backer, voiced its opposition in a statement May 17.
A strong New Komeito protest could gain support from much of the Japanese public, which polls show agrees with some of Abe’s ideas on security but opposes his legal methods.
However, recent statements by New Komeito leaders indicate the party may offer only symbolic resistance.
On Monday, New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi criticized the government’s justification for ending the ban on collective self-defense as “very abstract and vague,” Jiji Press reported from a members-only meeting at the Research Institute of Japan.
But Yamaguchi went on to deny that his party would leave the LDP ruling coalition over any disagreement on the issue.
Without the threat of weakening his governing majority, Abe faces little chance of failure.
The current talks between the LDP and New Komeito amount to political theater, said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan campus.
“Abe is desperately trying to demonstrate that he is consulting various groups,” Kingston said. “He’s moving in a slow and deliberate manner, he’s not going to shove it down the country’s throat the way he did on the [official secrecy] law, which proved extremely unpopular.”
Kingston said Abe could make a valid public argument for increasing Japan’s role in regional and international security operations, as well as for a broader U.S.-Japan security alliance.
However, Japan’s constitution offers a clear method for change, and Abe isn’t following it, he said.
A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority in both legislative houses, which most analysts agree the government can’t pull off.
On May 15, a government panel of legal experts issued a report arguing otherwise. It laid the groundwork for a reinterpretation, relying on close examination of the constitution’s verbiage, supreme court decisions from the 1950s and other precedents.
Abe and many on Japan’s political right have long disagreed with the current interpretation banning collective self-defense. Soon after the LDP was swept back into power during 2012 elections, Abe began citing tensions in North Korea and in the East and South China seas as evidence of the need for change.
The United States appears less concerned with Abe’s methods and more interested in broadening its defense options with a key ally in the Asia-Pacific region, which President Barack Obama has identified as America’s top long-term priority in foreign affairs.
During separate visits to Japan this year, Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel each endorsed Japan’s consideration of collective self-defense.
“The important collation partner the [LDP] consulted was the United States,” Kingston said. “What’s more important, making New Komeito happy, or making Washington happy? It’s obvious.”