Japan recently held a general election for half of the seats in its Upper House of Councilors. As a result, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), along with its coalition partner Komeito, now hold the majority in both Houses of the Diet. This swath of political power has the international community now pondering if the electoral success may embolden the Prime Minister to pursue his agenda more aggressively for the rest of his term.
As the longest serving Prime Minster in a decade, Shinzo Abe has pushed a platform of social, economic, and strategic issues meant to spur Japan’s economy and raise its profile in the world community. Of particular concern to Japan’s neighbors is whether PM Abe will revise Japan’s 70-year-old constitution to allow for greater strategic engagement by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and ease the Diet’s ability to make constitutional revisions.
Article 96 of Japan’s constitution stipulates that amendments to the constitution can be enacted only with the affirmation of a two-thirds majority in both Houses of the Diet, followed by a majority vote by the general populace.
Currently the LDP and Komeito hold more than two-thirds (326 of 475) of the seats in the Lower House. However, following elections on July 10 they remain shy of the mark in the Upper House, holding only 146 of the 162 seats needed for a two-thirds majority. To secure the necessary super majority there, Prime Minister Abe would need to attract votes from other smaller parties less enthusiastic about constitutional revision, as well as convince a citizenry wary of constitutional revision.
Getting all the necessary votes and the public on the side of constitutional revision may require more political capital than the LDP is willing to spend. The public is divided on the topic of constitutional revision and expressed only faint interest in even debating the issue. Economic issues still remain the public’s top concern.
The Prime Minister entered office three-and-a-half years ago on a platform of massive economic reform—dubbed “Abenomics.” The three-arrowed economic program promised monetary, fiscal, and structural reform to jump-start Japan’s moribund economy. A number of structural reforms have yet to be fully implemented, and Japan’s economic growth remains questionable.
And fiscal concerns are mounting. Japan’s population continues to age with more than a quarter now over the age of 65. The graying of Japan is increasing the strain on government expenditures.
To engage an apathetic youth more, election laws were amended last year to allow 18- and 19-year-olds to vote in the general election. To some surprise, a greater percentage of Japan’s youth voted for the LDP and the current government status quo.
The continued rise of Prime Minister Abe and the LDP, coupled with the strong election results have some in the international community, largely in China and South Korea, have expressed concerns that Japan is slowly returning to an authoritarian, re-militaristic, and even fascist government rule. They worry that the Prime Minister will rally his coalition, revise the constitution, and make it easier for Japan to go to war—despite the last 70-years of Japanese pacifism.
Surely these fears are a bit exaggerated. Indeed, they beg the question: Would Japan, a proven democratic responsible stakeholder, becoming more strategically engaged in the region really be such a bad thing?
Japan is one of the U.S.’s greatest strategic allies in the region plagued by an increasingly assertive People’s Republic of China and an ever-belligerent North Korea. Yet, Japan is still limited in its contributions to regional security by a self-imposed limit of only 1 percent of annual GDP being devoted to defense spending. Only recently have moves been made to allow Japan to utilize its right to collective self-defense and if necessary defend U.S. forces if they were ever to come under attack.
Other U.S. allies in the regions, such as the Philippines, increasingly welcome Japanese assistance on augmenting maritime security in the South China Sea as China continues to denounce international law and unilaterally expand its military operations.
For South Korea, trilateral strategic engagement with the U.S. and Japan is necessary as North Korea continues to augment and refine its nuclear weapons arsenal. However, South Korean memories of Japan’s brutal occupation still hamper expanding cooperation.
Despite political sensitivities, Prime Minister Abe would benefit from focusing on good economic reforms still yet to be delivered such as womenomics, tax reform, labor reform, and immigration. It’s less likely the Prime Minister would risk the majority hold of the LDP in both Houses, plus any additional international scorn, for the sake of constitutional revisions. Nonetheless, now that he holds a clear majority in both Houses, the public will expect him to make good on his economic promises.
Riley Walters is a research associate in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy.
Photo Credit: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe views the cockpit of an MV-22B Osprey Hyakuri Air Base during the Japan Air Self Defense Force’s Air Review in October 2014. Photo by Lance Cpl. Abbey Perria, III Marine Expeditionary Force. Source: U.S. Marine Corps.