Just this past weekend, Japan held snap elections for the lower house of its parliament, or Diet, as it is known in the country. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), along with its coalition partner the Komeito party, captured a super-majority of 313 of 465 seats in the lower house of the Diet after Sunday’s election, solidifying the LDP’s hold on power in the island nation of over 120 million people. Why should an election, held halfway across the world, matter to a normal American citizen who only casually follows the news? Well, if you have been concerned about or interested in the seemingly constant developments on the Korean peninsula, you need to know about this election, as it could have drastic consequences on the security situation in East Asia.
Before I get into those consequences, here’s a quick primer on Japanese Prime Minister Abe and why he called these snap elections in the first place, as they were not scheduled to go on for some time. Shinzo Abe was PM of Japan for a brief period from 2006 – 2007, was reinstalled in the position in December of 2012, and remains there today. He hails from Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, which is the nation’s establishment conservative party and has been in power almost continuously since 1955. Abe’s main policies are his economic stimulus plans, known as ‘Abenomics’, and his push to amend Japan’s pacifist Constitution, which was implemented by the United States after the Japanese Empire’s defeat and capitulation in World War II. Abenomics is too complex a topic to get into here (I recommend the link I included above from the Council on Foreign Relations for a great background), but what is crucial for our purposes is the drive to reform the Japanese Constitution. This Constitution, specifically Article 9, prohibits the Japanese from making war or having the implements to make war, which limits them to a ‘self-defense force’ that may not stray from Japanese territory. This force is unable to take preventive actions to protect Japanese interests, and thus the Japanese have largely come to rely on the US for security guarantees outside of their immediate territory.
Recently, as North Korea has become more of a regional security threat by increasing the pace of ballistic missile testing and launching multiple missiles over Japanese sovereign territory, and as American President Donald Trump has made conflicting statements when it comes to American security guarantees with respect to Japan, Prime Minister Abe and his LDP colleagues have become more forceful in their efforts to reform Japan’s Constitution. He is looking to expand the reach and ability of the ‘self-defense forces’ to protect Japan from external threats, like North Korea, and with his big electoral win, now has a path to do so. To alter the Japanese Constitution, 2/3 of each chamber of the Diet must approve, and the change must pass in a public referendum with a majority. This is no easy task, especially with not everyone in the LDP or their coalition partners agreeing on exactly how to make these important changes. Abe, however, saw the chance to take advantage of the sketchy security situation to consolidate his power in the Diet, and despite his personal unpopularity, ended up with a large win.
If the Japanese are able to come to a decision about reforming Article 9 of their Constitution and do increase the external role of their ‘self-defense forces’, this could play a huge role in altering the balance of power in East Asia, particularly with respect to the situation brewing in North Korea. Abe has already promised a tougher stance on North Korea, but allowing the Japanese ‘military’ to become more operationally active would force all parties in the region to do something about the North Korean nuclear program, as it would upset the already tenuous balance of power in the area. A working Japanese military presence would be a large support to South Korean and American forces in East Asia, and would exert pressure on both China and North Korea. Whether that pressure ends up with something akin to the Six-Party Talks or just more brinkmanship, this time with increased militarization, I do not know. I do know that Japanese Constitutional reform would bring a huge change for the region, fundamentally alter how Japan sees itself and is seen by its neighbors (especially as resentment from the militaristic Japanese Empire period still looms large, particularly in Korea), and likely would move the North Korean situation closer to some sort of climax, whether positive or negative.
All eyes are on Shinzo Abe now, so congratulations for his electoral win will be short-lived and the questions about what happens next will be coming in fast.