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Empire of the Setting Sun

Shinzo Abe is trying to roll back nearly 70 years of Japanese pacifism, but is the country ready to be "normal" again?

SANTIAGO, CHILE - JULY 31: Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a wreath laying ceremony at the monument of General Bernardo O'Higgins on July 31, 2014 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Fernando Lavoz/LatinContent/Getty Images)
SANTIAGO, CHILE - JULY 31: Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a wreath laying ceremony at the monument of General Bernardo O'Higgins on July 31, 2014 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Fernando Lavoz/LatinContent/Getty Images)

In Japan, recent elections that have given Prime Minister Shinzo Abe supermajorities in both houses of the Diet, the country’s parliament, may have implications for alliance politics across the Pacific. So too do Donald Trump’s trash talking of American allies in the region and the dim prospects for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal in Washington that Abe has supported more for China-driven geopolitical benefits than economic reasons. Although Hillary Clinton is not all that popular in Japan — where the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has found it easier to work with Republicans — Trump is toxic.

Relying yet again on a bait-and-switch strategy, Abe campaigned on his economic platform, known as Abenomics, asking voters to give him more time to get it revved up — and then claimed that his victory gave him a mandate to amend the constitution. Following his resounding victory, he immediately announced that he would seek advice from Diet committees on constitutional revision.

Abe’s party, the LDP, issued a draft constitution in 2012 that seeks to overhaul the 1947 constitution written by the United States. This draft enjoys the support of Nippon Kaigi, the nation’s most influential right-wing lobby group. They want to downsize women’s rights, remove constraints on the nation’s military forces, put the emperor back on top, and impose duties on citizens while limiting their civil rights.

The war-renouncing Article 9 of the current constitution is a bête noire for Abe, but his coalition partner, Komeito, adamantly opposes revision of this pacifist pillar of postwar Japan, one that enjoys strong public support. Is there any language he could hammer out that would appeal? It won’t be easy — even within the LDP, there are significant differences of opinion about revising Article 9.

Assuming Abe does proceed with revising Article 9, and manages to convince Komeito to support his quest — a long shot — what other revisions would he package it with to garner the required two-thirds vote in both houses of the Diet and win a constitutionally mandated simple majority in a national referendum?

The troubling politics of constitutional revision and deep skepticism in the public about the wisdom of doing so require him to avoid an up-or-down referendum on Article 9. (Perhaps he will present it along with an innocuous provision on the environment.) And now that Emperor Akihito has signaled his readiness to abdicate — an exit that is not sanctioned by law — Abe might see some public relations advantage in tweaking the Imperial Household law, or even revising constitutional provisions regarding the emperor, allowing Akihito to retire. Irony abounds, as Akihito has been something of a nemesis for Abe, subtly but persistently rebuking him over his revisionist historical views downplaying the horrors wartime Japan inflicted throughout Asia. Akihito has also been a stalwart supporter of a constitution that Abe believes was imposed by the United States to emasculate Japan and keep it a subordinate client state.

But Abe has a steep uphill climb to sell constitutional revision. A NHK poll in June found that only 26 percent of voters support constitutional revision and only 11 percent think it is a priority. Moreover, with a rapidly aging population, economic stagnation, and gathering fiscal woes, can Japan become the U.K. of the Far East that many hawkish security wonks in Washington desire?

Nope. Abe has led them on. In 2015, he signed the new Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation that in theory vastly expand what Japan would be willing to do militarily in support of the United States anywhere in the world. That summer, he oversaw contentious Diet debates about security legislation that would enable Japan to live up to the new commitments, but Komeito, his coalition partner, forced him to accept certain conditions for dispatching troops that might tie his (or his successors’) hands. Problematically, Abe told Americans that the new defense guidelines would redefine Japan’s security posture — while, back home, he was reassuring his citizens that the new security legislation was no big deal.

So the Abe Doctrine seems compromised from the get go, over-promising and under-delivering from the U.S. perspective while recklessly endangering Japan from a domestic perspective. Abe did pass the legislation but never managed to dispel public concerns — vociferously displayed in massive rallies outside the Diet throughout the summer of 2015 — that sometime, somewhere at Washington’s behest, Tokyo will get dragged into a conflict that has nothing to do with the defense of Japan.

Alliance managers in Washington ought to be alarmed that there is so little public support for Japan playing a more assertive security role. Moreover, the U.S. military presence in Japan has become politicized and a target for protestors, especially in Okinawa, where most American bases are located.

Okinawans resent that they have to deal with the consequences of shouldering a disproportionate base-hosting burden; 74 percent of U.S. facilities in Japan are based in Okinawa, occupying about 18 percent of the main island — where about half of U.S. forces in Japan are stationed. The recent rape and murder of a young woman by an American base worker has reignited the kindling of discontent. A June poll conducted by the local newspaper Ryukyu Shimpo found that 42.9 percent of locals want all U.S. bases out of Okinawa, the highest tally ever, while 27.1 percent want a significant downsizing, meaning that some 70 percent of Okinawans espouse anti-base sentiments. As for the U.S. Marines, an unprecedented 52.7 percent in the same poll want them to leave Okinawa altogether.

These grim numbers are an inconvenient reality for policymakers on both sides of the Pacific who are frustrated that the Japanese public doesn’t seem to understand the implications of the rising threats posed by Beijing and Pyongyang. Why don’t they get with the program and embrace the Abe Doctrine and support U.S. bases?

Because pacifist sentiments are deeply embedded in Japan’s postwar values and norms and explain why people remain deeply skeptical about this security agenda. To most Okinawans, the U.S. bases seem more like targets than protection — and the Abe Doctrine risks involving Japan in American military adventurism. The folly of following militarist leaders, and the risks of being caught between distant powers, is passed down in family lore and commemorated in local museums, textbooks, documentaries, and annual rituals honoring the dead. In this context, Article 9, though honored in the breach, has a resilient symbolic importance. This symbolism resonates powerfully because the traumas of war linger in the nation’s collective memory. Many Japanese oppose Abe’s efforts to lift constitutional constraints on the military because they link this agenda with his efforts to rewrite history by downplaying the country’s wartime misdeeds. This exculpatory revisionist history not only roils regional powers but has been a sore point in U.S.-Japan relations. For example, Washington promptly rebuked Abe for his 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine — ground zero for an unrepentant stance on Japan’s Asia-Pacific rampage from 1931 to 1945. In 2014, President Barack Obama also pressured Abe to own up to responsibility for the “comfort women” system of sexual slavery.

The takeaway here is that persistent low-key pressure by the United States, on history issues that forced Abe to backpedal from his revisionist views, has led to a thaw of sorts in frosty relations between Seoul and Tokyo that had prevented enhanced security cooperation between Washington and its two allies. This involved patient diplomacy and a nuanced understanding of the complexities of regional relations.

It is examples such as these that make America’s friends across the region worry about a Trump presidency, because he doesn’t do nuance and ad libs himself into dead ends that will sabotage America’s Asian interests. He recently slammed Japan, saying, “If we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to do anything. They can sit home and watch Sony television, OK?” Aside from demonstrating that Trump lives in a 1980s time warp, his gratuitous attacks on U.S. allies and his threats to impose what amounts to a “pay as you go” approach to alliance commitments carries disastrous implications. From Asia’s perspective, Trump is an accident waiting to happen. This is, in part, why the GOP foreign-policy establishment has disowned Trump. He would alienate America’s friends in Asia and thereby cede the advantage to China. Surely, the prospects of such an epic own goal is a powerful reason to defeat Trump.

While the U.S. presidential campaign heats up, Abe ponders how to handle the emperor’s desire to abdicate and ensure that it doesn’t distract from his goal of revising the constitution. Finessing that will be difficult — even with his supermajorities in both houses of the Diet — because the public remains skeptical about his security agenda. He is also grappling with Okinawan defiance, as legal battles over the U.S. bases with Gov. Takeshi Onaga intensify alongside popular protests. Abe has invested much in strengthening the U.S. alliance, so Trump’s loudmouth Japan-bashing and erratic brickbats amplify existing anxieties about Washington’s reliability. Whoever prevails in the election will have to engage in some fence mending to reassure Tokyo and other allies and partners in the region that, when in trouble, they are not on their own.

Photo credit: Fernando Lavoz/LatinContent/Getty Images


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