National / Politics | DECISION 2016

A ruling bloc win in Sunday's poll puts Constitution in crosshairs

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Keiko Hirai was surprised to see a letter addressed to her and her husband from the Self-Defense Forces, urging their 15-year-old son to enroll in a special high school run by the Ground Self-Defense Force after graduating from junior high.

Wondering how the SDF obtained the address when Japan has a strict data privacy law, the letter revealed the information came courtesy of the SDF law and the Resident Registration Law, which allow municipalities to give the SDF access to the resident registry without a citizen’s consent. Such recruiting letters are legal as long as they do not directly address minors.

At the high school referred to in the letter, students are not SDF personnel and do not engage in any SDF operation, but they take combat and arms-related classes on top of regular classes and are paid a monthly salary of ¥94,900 as public servants.

“This sounds like the draft for financially challenged people, especially when the SDF is reportedly having a hard time recruiting after the security laws were enacted,” said Hirai. “I’m not going to vote for the Liberal Democratic Party because I can’t trust Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s words that Japan will not be dragged into a war. I don’t want my children to go to war.”

Hirai may be one of the rare few who has personally felt the impact of the contentious security legislation strongly enough to decide to vote against candidates running on the ruling LDP’s ticket in Sunday’s Upper House election. But for most voters, security issues and amending the Constitution, both pet goals of LDP chief Abe, are low on the priority list, polls show.

Yet one question that nags voters is whether they can trust a hawkish prime minister who promises the SDF won’t be dispatched to “the other side of the world” to protect Japan’s allies under the security legislation, which allows the forces to engage in collective self-defense, enough to cast their ballots for LDP candidates.

In the LDP’s favor may be lingering doubts about whether the opposition camp, which has vowed to abolish the security laws if it comes to power, has a viable alternative plan to mitigate the escalating security crisis in Asia.

Abe has argued that the security legislation has boosted Japan’s deterrence power in the face of a growing North Korea nuclear threat and assertive China in both the East and South China seas. The LDP also is pushing to revise the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 to make the SDF an officially designated military force to cope with the changing global security environment.

Abe’s ambition is clear. He has explicitly said he aims to revise the Constitution before his term as LDP president officially expires in September 2018.

However, the opportunity to achieve this may come much sooner if the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition gets a two-thirds majority with other pro-revision parties in Sunday’s Upper House poll.

Four opposition parties, including the Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party, are arguing that handing the ruling bloc a two-thirds majority in the House of Councilors — it already has the numbers in the Lower House — will steer Japan away from pacifism.

To avoid that scenario, opposition forces agreed to jointly field candidates for each of the 32 single-seat constituencies under the single goal to abolish what they claim is unconstitutional security legislation. They also seek to thwart Abe’s ultimate ambition to revise Article 9.

The LDP has sneered at the move, pointing out their policies on security and the Constitution are poles apart.

However, Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, said opposition parties don’t necessary need to agree on each and every policy because the coming election of the Upper House, the less-powerful chamber, won’t lead to a change of power given Abe’s ruling bloc is firmly in control of the Lower House.

“This election is not about changing the government,” said Nakano. “Even though the opposition force cannot agree on everything, they are on the same page over how the government should adhere to the Constitution.”

Nakano also pointed out that the LDP and Komeito differ on whether to revise Article 9.

The DP has made it clear its ties with the JCP won’t go beyond electoral cooperation, and forming a coalition with the party would be out of the question unless they can resolve key policy differences.

Their biggest difference is their respective stances against the SDF, the Japan-U.S. security alliance and U.S. military bases in Japan, the cornerstones of Japan’s defense. The JCP wants all three scrapped, while the DP says they are necessary.

The DP, which has many lawmakers who share similar views with the LDP on national security, also believes laws are needed to better counter the changing global security situation.

Earlier this year, the DP’s predecessors, the Democratic Party of Japan and Ishin no To, worked together on a bill to expand the SDF’s activities in a “gray-zone” situation, a scenario that falls short of a full-scale attack on Japan. They also submitted two bills to limit the area where the SDF can operate near Japan under the security legislation.

The two parties are at odds on the issue of the SDF engaging in peacekeeping operations overseas.

The DP supports the revised peacekeeping law that allows SDF peacekeepers to rescue civilians, such as those working for nongovernmental organizations, and soldiers of foreign forces who come under attack. But the JCP is against sending SDF elements on peacekeeping missions altogether.

Yuichi Hosoya, an international relations professor at Keio University, said from a broader perspective the security legislation allows Japan to contribute more toward global security.

“People in the anti-security legislation camp are saying that Japanese lives are precious, and that Japan should not help people of other nationalities. But I think that’s nationalism,” said Hosoya, who has served as an adviser for the National Security Council in Japan.

Still, Abe’s recent remarks about Japan’s pacifism, combined with his desire to revise Article 9, has given voters cause for concern.

During a one-on-one debate with DP leader Katsuya Okada in May, Abe said his idea of pacifism is not to wage a war of aggression.

A surprised Okada said Abe failed to mention Japan’s defense-oriented security policy, which has been the core of the nation’s pacifism. Abe’s remark indicates Japan can use force as long as it doesn’t invade other countries, he said.

“The prime minister of Japan changed the concept of the most important pillar of the Constitution, namely pacifism, and this should not be overlooked,” said Okada. “The Constitution is a very important issue that should be discussed during this election campaign.”

But the issue is on the back burner as the LDP focuses its candidates’ campaign speeches on the economy. Komeito is also avoiding mention of a constitutional revision in its campaign platform, claiming the time is not right to discuss the topic.

The opposition camp claims the ruling bloc is deliberately avoiding talking about the Constitution until after the election.

Its form from the past two elections suggests this is true.

During the election campaigns for the Lower House in December 2014 and the Upper House in July 2013, Abe focused entirely on reviving the economy. But once the ruling coalition won the elections, his administration focused its political energy on passing the contentious state secrecy and security bills in the Diet.

Yuichiro Ishikawa, a professor on the Constitution at Seitoku Gakuin University, said Abe and his coalition shouldn’t rush to revise the Constitution without thorough Diet deliberations.

“The Abe government seems to think it can bulldoze anything because it has a two-thirds majority in the Lower House,” he said. “In order to have a rational debate on the Constitution, it’s better that the ruling bloc doesn’t have a two-thirds majority in the Upper House as well.”

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