Japan aims for bigger role in global security, but opposition holds firm

Opposition lawmaker Taro Yamamoto, right, shouts before casting his early morning vote during Japan Diet proceedings on Sept. 19, 2015. Lawmakers enacted a series of bills broadening Japan's defense powers, despite protests.


By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 19, 2015

TOKYO — In the eyes of opponents, Japan on Saturday tossed away a uniquely pacifist vision in favor of “The War Law.”

To supporters, Japan’s passage of 11 security-related bills marked the moment when Japan took a look around its neighborhood, saw nuclear weapons in North Korea and ballooning military budgets in China, and acted to preserve the region’s security balance.

“The passage of the bills will further ensure the safety of our nation and enable Japan to steadily contribute to international accords and world peace,” Junichi Ishi, a lawmaker with the dominant Liberal Democratic Party, told reporters following the 148-90 upper house Diet vote that enacted the bills into law in the wee hours of the morning Saturday, following a long day of acrimonious debate.

Many in the ruling party stated in recent days that the legal changes are actually modest compared with the security laws of other nations.

For example, Japan’s forces may be able to defend a U.S. or other close ally’s ship under attack, but they still can’t legally shoot and kill terrorists overseas without facing criminal charges at home, according to multiple legal scholars.

Even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who justified the new laws by reinterpreting, rather than amending a constitution that explicitly prohibits “war as a sovereign right of the nation,” made no attempt at legalizing an offensive capability for Japan.

Despite the restrictions, many Japanese expressed fear regarding where Abe’s latest steps may take the country.

A Sept. 14 poll by the Asahi newspaper showed 54 percent opposed the security bills, with 29 percent in favor and the remainder undecided. The same poll showed 75 percent said the issue had not received enough debate in the national Diet.

Observers view these numbers, in part, as a product of pacifism’s deep roots within the Japanese psyche, born of 1930s militarism and the tragic consequences of WWII.

“These bills are unmistakably meant to enable Japan to join war,” opposition Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Tetsuro Fukuyama told reporters Saturday. “The government calls them peace and security bills to deceive the public. But the public is well aware of the deception.”

Opponents made their voices heard, even if they couldn’t fundamentally change the government’s policy.

Japan’s teens and university students, long known more for their political apathy, quickly formed an organized protest movement against the new laws.

Tens of thousands of protesters surrounded the Diet building in the days leading to the vote, often demonstrating well into the night.

Heavily outnumbered opposition lawmakers in Japan’s normally staid upper house took their cues from the protesters. They even provided a dose of irony when they initiated a shoving match in support of pacifism during a committee meeting Thursday.

There were also demonstrations in favor of the security bills, though they were far smaller.

The Liberal Democratic Party’s political base includes a segment of right-wing voters who believe that the 1947 constitution, written during the U.S. post-war occupation, left Japan unfairly weakened.

Moderate LDP supporters argued that stronger alliances were Japan’s best defense against Pyongyang’s unpredictable regime and China’s growing ambitions, which include ownership of the Japan-administered Senkaku islands.

The LDP coalition’s victory was never in doubt Saturday, despite the vocal opposition. Even if the upper house had not passed the legislation, a second vote in the lower house would still have enacted the new measures. The bills passed the more powerful lower house in July, buoyed by the ruling coalition’s two-thirds majority.

Changes in the U.S.-Japan alliance

President Barack Obama and other U.S. senior officials have distanced themselves from the domestic debate, but they’ve voiced support for the substance of the laws.

Until now, the U.S-Japan alliance has been viewed by some analysts as more of a protection agreement, due to its one-way nature, than a true alliance.

The new security laws allow Japan to defend U.S. forces and weapons platforms, or those of other close allies, if not doing so would threaten Japan’s security. They also allow the Self-Defense Forces to join the U.S. and other allies in peacekeeping operations far beyond Japan’s shores.

“While it is within a limited scope, the use of the right to collective self-defense … enables further enhancement of the deterrence power of the Japan-U.S. alliance,” said Kunihiko Miyake, former diplomat and visiting professor at Ritsumeikan University.

However, it remains unclear how the new laws will affect Japanese operations in the immediate future.

The laws may encourage Japan to conduct joint patrols in the South China Sea with the U.S. and possibly Australia.

The U.S. asserts freedom of navigation rights in the South China Sea, despite ambiguous claims by China to most of its waters and airspace. Japan’s interests may align, given China’s claim on the Senkaku Islands and surrounding waters in the East China Sea.

“We consider this as a potential future issue to be considered depending on how things pan out,” Adm. Katsutoshi Kawano, Japan’s military chief, said during a July visit to Washington.

Abe courted controversy in May when he mentioned that the new laws also could be used to allow Japan to conduct minesweeping operations in the Strait of Hormuz, should Iran ever attempt to choke the flow of global oil supplies.

Opponents saw the comment as further proof that the new laws could get Japan entangled in foreign wars that do not directly threaten the nation.

Abe has since dismissed the likelihood of a need for such operations.

A more likely use of the new laws will come through logistical support. Japan supplied fuel to U.S. ships in support of Afghanistan operations as allowed by a series of temporary laws.

The new laws give the government permanent legislation to workunder, a global reach and a more diverse supply chest.

“The newly enacted permanent law enables SDF to provide not only water and fuel but ammunition as well” to the United States, said Kenji Isezaki, professor of peace and conflict studies at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. “The Self-Defense Force has now become a convenience store in the ocean.”

The Abe government’s public support dipped under 40 percent in several polls during the security debate, but his party is still far more popular than any of Japan’s fragmented opposition parties.

It remains to be seen whether the protests against Abe — which continued in smaller numbers after Saturday’s vote — will follow him as he turns his attention to reviving Japan’s economy.

Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

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