Abe’s Troubles at Home Are Cause for Concern Abroad

July 28, 2017

Editor’s Note: This was originally published by The Interpreter, the online magazine of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing select articles from The Interpreter.

This month, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, which is led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, experienced its first major electoral defeat since Abe’s inauguration in December 2012. The Tomin First no Kai (‘Tokyoites First’, known as Tomin), a local political party led by the Governor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike, convincingly trounced the Liberal Democratic Party in the Tokyo metropolitan election. Tomin won 49 of the 127 seats contested (the most of any party), while Liberal Democratic Party went from 59 to 23 seats. Meanwhile, national polls show the approval rate of the Abe administration has dropped to around 30%.

This major slump in support comes as Abe seeks to increase Japan’s defense responsibility and capability. There is no question that Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party face some serious challenges, but in the short term at least, the prime minister’s defense agenda is unlikely to change markedly, given the lack of alternative to the Liberal Democratic Party and the serious nature of Japan’s security situation.

On the domestic front, scandals and sloppy statements from Liberal Democratic Party politicians have been gleefully seized upon by Japan’s media. There is no clear successor to Abe, which indicates an Liberal Democratic Party overdependence on one individual. And the Liberal Democratic Party has also not consolidated the party’s position on key policy matters, particularly on the constitutional amendment. Abe’s announcement earlier this year that he hoped these changes (which would add a paragraph to the war-renouncing Article 9 of the country’s constitution to give grounds to the Self-Defense Forces) would be in effect by 2020 came as a surprise to many. This proposal differs significantly from that set out in the Liberal Democratic Party draft revision, released back in 2012. The Liberal Democratic Party has managed to accommodate different positions on constitutional revisions in the past, but a consolidated position in the party will be essential (and soon) for maintaining the 2020 timeline.

The domestic political situation is playing out in the shadow of an increasingly serious external security environment. North Korea’s missile and nuclear developments are now a direct threat to Japan and the United States. This month the Chinese Coast Guard entered Japan’s territorial waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, in the Tsugaru Strait between Honshu and Hokkaido, and off Tsushima Island. China’s ongoing militarization of maritime features in the South China Sea following the arbitral award issued last year continues to heighten tensions.

In this environment, there is little chance of Japan cutting down on its commitment to regional security. Domestic politics has also not successfully come up with an alternative security policy to the Liberal Democratic Party’s approach toward the rules-based regional order.

The Democratic Party, the largest opposition party in the Diet, appears to have not yet regained credence among voters, winning only five seats in the metropolitan election. Aside from a lackluster three years in power, the Democratic Party’s recent cooperation with the Japan Communist Party and its relentless criticism of the Abe administration might alienate moderate voters. While the Liberal Democratic Party has already lost in local elections to Ishin no Kai in in Osaka and Tomin in Tokyo, these parties are primarily focused on local issues and are not prepared to govern on a national level. The coalition partner of Ishin no Kai and Tomin at the local level, Komeito, still continues to support the Liberal Democratic Party at the national level.

Japan’s opposition parties also do not have robust security policies. For example, while the Democratic Party’s policy platform states it will amend the unconstitutional element in the historic 2015 legislation that allowed Japan to exercise a limited form of collective self-defense, there is no clear answer as to how it would address the emerging security challenge, or interpret the concept of collective self-defense. The Democratic Party and Japan Communist Party are also opposed to the amendment of the Article 9, and the Democratic Party has also in the past backed the relocation of the U.S. marines based in Okinawa to outside of Japan. However, the opposition parties have yet to demonstrate how they would fill the resulting power vacuum or complement amphibious deployment forces in the Ryukyu Islands without U.S. marines. Meanwhile, the ruling coalition acquired two-thirds majority support in the upper house election in 2016 for the current government’s security policy. The Liberal Democratic Party Research Commission on Security’s policy recommendations from this year suggest the government considers strengthening its counterstrike capability and increasing defense expenditure to 2% of GDP (a benchmark referred to by the Abe administration).

Moreover, contrary to the domestic controversy about Abe’s security policy, and the legislation for peace and security in particular, regional countries chiefly supported this legislation. The United StatesAustraliaIndia as well as many Southeast Asian states have indicated support for Abe’s focus on regional security. China and South Korea have been opposed.

All this said, the Abe cabinet no longer has a free hand in foreign and security policy due to its falling approval rate. Abe has had to expend political capital on a cabinet reshuffle, the disciplining of party members and, most importantly, economic reforms to recover public support.

Against this background, early timing for the constitutional amendment should not be expected. According to a poll conducted by Kyodo, 32.6% of respondents support the amendments under Abe, while 54.8% are opposed. While there would be good reason to increase defense expenditure to be closer to 2% of GDP given the current security situations, there are other pressing demands on the budget.

Despite the Liberal Democratic Party’s recent setbacks, there is little room for a dramatic shift of foreign and security policy due to external threats and an internal lack of alternatives. Constitutional amendment is still some way down the road. While Japan’s role in protecting the rules-based regional order increases, arrogance and carelessness in the Liberal Democratic Party has disturbed, if not stopped, the advancement of realistic security policy. Japan cannot afford to go back to a time of revolving door leadership – as the ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party has a duty to address public concerns about the future.


Ryosuke Hanada is Research Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, Tokyo, Japan. Hanada specialises in Japan’s foreign policy, covering Japan’s policy toward Asia Pacific regionalism as well as relations with Australia, India and Southeast Asian nations. Hanada has been a PhD candidate at the Australian National University since 2015. He acquired his MA in International Politics at the University of Warwick in 2012 and BA in Law at Waseda University 2011.