the abe government is holding on tight to its unpopular security legislation. its strategy appears to be one of standing still and waiting out the storm. in fact, it is a political calculation of shrewdness much more than of arrogance. meanwhile, opposition - and increasingly ldp - forces demand a more thorough legislative process as well as substantive concessions as it goes to the upper house. neither will happen.
a revision of the constitution that defines the legal and political codes enshrining society’s most fundamental beliefs is a delicate subject in any country. in japan, it goes to the very heart of people’s political self-identity: in the united states, right-wing and left-wing are mostly defined in terms of where you stand in regards to government spending and the role of government; in germany, it is about where you are located in the ideational spectrum between nsdap (the nazi party) and sed (the former east german communist party). in japan, it is very much about where you stand on the admissibility of changing the constitution. the strength of this identity-establishing nature of the japanese constitution becomes clear when looking at the frequency of constitutional change – there has been none in japan:
find more background data in the data sets section
it was thus clear all along that the abe administration would run into a hailstorm of criticism should it slate the constitution for revision – as it was clear that shinzo abe would initiate the process anyways when he so decisively won the snap election in december 2014. and so the administration is in a jam right now, with only a paltry 18% of the population supporting its legislation and as many as 80% opposed to it according to polls by nhk, japan’s public broadcaster.
observers now start to question the democratic legitimacy of the legislative initiative given this broad public opposition. in a recent japan times article, koichi nakano, a professor at sophia university and nimble-witted critic of abe, wrote the abe administration is experiencing an “arrogance of power moment”. and michael penn, president at shingetsu news, questioned abe’s democratic legitimacy wholesale on al-jazeera, on grounds of the supreme court ruling on the rural-urban vote disparity (a somewhat weak accusation, given abe’s overwhelming victory in the last elections).
in essence, this debate is revisiting the old question of parliamentary democracy: do voters need to back every individual proposal? many – often the same observers arguing against the revision – would like to see abe move forward with his economic reforms, however. but whilst the general idea of economic reform may have the backing of voters, when it comes to individual measures (one only need to think of painful economic reforms, such as the sales tax hike), opposition often outweighs support. so why should for the economic policy domain be right what is wrong for the legal policy domain? conversely the question for abe, why not scrap his unpopular security bill, when he fields lack of public support as reason for scrapping the olympic stadium plans?
at the core of this problem are two issues: first, the just mentioned opposition to the legislation is often grounded on strong emotional attachment to the idea of the constitution rather than in particular objections to specific revisions proposed. the fiercest opponents hence label this bill the ‘war bill’, which is certainly exaggerated: even with the new interpretation, the japanese self defence forces will operate within very narrow confines. war or military threat will still not be options for japan. what will change is that the right to self-defence that japan is exercising already will be extended to its key ally, but again only within narrow constraints – if there is an imminent threat also to japan in the immediate neighbourhood and in cases where the u.s. is actually in the process of defending japan under its collective security guarantee.
in view of the narrow changes actually made there is a tendency towards hyperbole in the debate, which makes a substantial debate on the actual themes – japan’s conception of ‘national security’ and how it wants to deal with a changing security architecture in the region – difficult. this has a lot do with abe’s personal and very conservative views hovering above the government’s more restrained proposals and the fear of a watershed being opened towards further revisions. but besides emotional objections to changing the constitution that has served japan so well in the past, opponents have rational worries about unclear provisions in the bill, such as the blurring of combat and non-combat engagement in overseas missions by japan’s self defence forces. there is plenty left to be debated, but there will not be plenty of debate.
this final, procedural point is the second reason why opposition is so vehement and does not ebb down. even if voters do not need to give their blessing to every individual proposal, and it is for the elected – professional, full-time – representatives to decide on specific content, it is certainly one of the legislators’ core tasks to explain their choices transparently and properly. abe and his government have utterly failed on this account and cut-out carton models will not be able to stem the tide. public opinion has even turned more strongly against his proposals. many of the objections rest on the communications disaster by the government. opponents object to the prime minister’s promise made in the u.s. congress of a bill within this year, before the topic was even on the floor in the diet; they object to the speed at which the legislation is pushed through by the ruling coalition; they object to the fact that the revision is clad in the guise of a ‘reinterpretation’ rather than a fully fledged constitutional amendment with much higher thresholds; and they object to the shoulder-shrugging of the ruling party when asked about public opposition.
abe’s growing chorus of critics - which, increasingly, also comes from within the ldp, like seiko noda and taku yamasaki - with vocal public backing behind them want to push abe towards a more thorough process as well as towards substantive concessions once the bill runs into troubles in the upper house (where the opposition is in a stronger position). neither will happen.
as for the first wish, prime minister abe will not allow the debate to go one day longer than necessary. each day the revision is discussed hurts him in the polls. abe also sees the limits of public understanding to be reached: he stated that the japanese people will come around eventually, just as they did before. people only say ‘no’ in opinion polls because they do not fully understand the matter, but they will, eventually. shigeru ishiba, a cabinet minister (and former defence minister) said that, for now, the ldp cannot hope for more understanding in this complicated matter.
in private, cabinet ministers go much further and make clear that they wilfully choose to ignore public opinion because it is of little import and there is hence no real need to gain more public understanding. in a recent, off the record, meeting with a few journalists, one cabinet minister stated that the japanese people actually “do not care” deeply about the bill (関心がない) and that opposition against the iraq war was much fiercer.
statements such as this make clear what kind of assessment of the issue of public opinion the abe government has reached: the revision, once done, will be of minor importance for future elections once the focus is back on abenomics – a calculation that worked very well before (link). in the eyes of the government, therefore, current public opinion simply does not carry that much weight – voters are opposed, but will not make all future elections dependent on this issue. and so it is best to get over with it as quickly as possible. and neither is there a need for concessions that would make the opposition look stronger and more relevant. what we are seeing is thus less an ‘arrogance of power moment’ and more a moment of shrewd political calculation.
politically speaking, shinzo abe cannot gain anything by conceding either on process or on substance. so he will not concede. rather than to start a brawl about procedure, then, the opposition might best use the short time slated for discussion to use the opportunity for a heated debate on different conceptualisations of japan’s role in the world and of concepts of national security in a changing regional security architecture.