Japan’s Upper House of Parliament passed security measures early Saturday that ease some restrictions placed upon the military by the country’s post-World War II pacifist constitution. But it has been a more contentious legislative battle than Prime Minister Shinzo Abe likely expected.
Pacifist opponents of the changes succeeded in turning public opinion against the measures, in part by organizing mass demonstrations across the country.
One recent poll showed 54 percent of respondents opposed the bills, while only 29 percent supported them. But a majority of lawmakers and large segments of the public still support changes that they say will improve the country’s security by making it responsible for shouldering more responsibility for its defenses.
Inside parliament opposition Democratic Party members tried to delay the vote. On Friday the opposition attempted to introduce a bill to censure Abe. The motion, as expected, was defeated.
One opposition member tried to walk very slowly to cast his vote but was ordered by the chamber president to speed up.
Earlier in the week the bill's opponents scuffled with ruling Liberal Democratic Party members over a procedural issue that would end any further debate.
However, Abe’s coalition holds a solid majority of support in parliament and was able to force the vote and pass the bills Friday before a five-day holiday starts Saturday, and more mass demonstrations can occur.
Passage at political price
In July the security legislation was approved by the lower house of parliament where Abe's coalition holds a two-thirds majority.
While it was a legislative victory for Abe, Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo says the prime minister lost a great deal of public confidence.
“He talked a great deal about gaining the public understanding of the new bills but has acknowledged that this has not happened,” Kingston said.
The security bills will revise 10 existing laws and give the military more latitude to defend Japan's people and interests, to participate in collective self-defense, and defend allies like the United States.
Opponents argue that the bills will violate Article 9 of the country’s postwar constitution that renounces the use of offensive force to wage war or settle international disputes, and entangle Japan in international conflicts.
There will likely be legal challenges to the security bills and pacifists have promised to mobilize voters in next year’s upper parliament house elections.
Abe and his supporters argue Japan needs to increase the scope and power of its military to counter potential threats from countries like China and North Korea that are increasing their military and nuclear capabilities.
China and other countries in Asia that suffered under Japanese occupation during World War II have raised concerns that the measures signal Tokyo’s intent to again become an aggressive military power.
Beijing's Chinese Communist Party newspaper the People's Daily Overseas Edition ran an editorial Friday that said Abe has “brought huge uncertainty to the security situation in the Asia-Pacific region.”
The Global Times, another Chinese state-run newspaper advocated that China respond to Japan’s more proactive security posture by increasing its military presence.
“We can counter this by developing a more powerful military to withstand Japan's provocation," said the Global Times editorial.
Japan also holds competing claims with China to the Senkaku islands, as they are known in Japan, or the Diaoyu islands, as they are called in China. Japan and South Korea both claim an island grouping called Dokdo by Koreans and Takeshima by Japanese.
East Asia analyst Hosaka Yuji with Sejong University in Seoul says Tokyo’s authorization to use military force to defend its interests increases the possibly for conflict over these territorial disputes.
“South Korea must be prepared for any incidents that can happen in the East Sea," Yuji said. "There is Dokdo island in this area so South Korea will have a stronger responsibility to protect Dokdo in the case of a crisis between South Korea and Japan.”
Washington supports the measures that would permit its ally Japan to take a more active role in regional security.
Hosaka says the new security measures that authorize Japan to defend its ally, the United States, also raise concerns that it could become more involved in the Korean Peninsula. It is an unlikely prospect he says but given the language of the legislation it opens up a number of scenarios that could lead to unanticipated conflict.