On Sunday, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory, winning 284 of the 465 seats in the lower house of the Diet. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s junior coalition partner, Komeito, added 29 seats, giving the ruling coalition a two-thirds supermajority.
In addition to freeing the LDP from a mandatory ballot challenge before 2021, Abe’s election victory provides new support for his efforts to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution.
Abe went into the election arguing that his track record on the economy and national security should be the decisive factor, and voters appear to have agreed. Japan faces new security challenges from two of its neighbors. North Korean missiles have passed over Japan twice in recent months, leaving Japanese citizens rattled by early-morning text alerts. And at the recent Communist Party Congress in Beijing, President Xi Jinping promised that China would be “moving closer to center stage,” raising additional concerns in Japan.
Just one month ago, the LDP appeared to be facing a serious challenge from Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s newly formed Party of Hope. Yet Koike’s party secured just 50 seats and came in a disappointing third place behind the new Constitutional Democratic Party, which won 55 seats. The CDP was formed from the left-leaning remains of the Democratic Party of Japan after its more conservative members defected to Koike’s party.
The ruling coalition’s supermajority ensures not only that Abe will remain in power, but also that he can now push for a revision of Japan’s constitution, his personal pledge and an unfulfilled element of the LDP platform since 1955. Although many in the public remain skeptical of the constitutional revision plan, the LDP’s success in this election represents an endorsement of the ruling coalition’s governing ability, particularly on security issues.
What are the implications for Japanese security policy?
The same week that Japanese voters went to the polls, they saw Xi promise more assertiveness at China’s 19th party congress, reinforcing Abe’s message about the need for steady leadership in Tokyo. Abe’s support was also buoyed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests — and no doubt by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s threats in September to “sink” Japan.
Japan has worked closely with the Trump administration on sanctioning North Korea and is a leading U.S. ally on missile defense. Tokyo is likely to introduce additional missile defense capabilities such as Aegis Ashore or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems in the near future, given that the LDP has supported additional defense spending for these purposes.
There may also be debates within the ruling coalition on the need for Japan to deploy its own surface-to-surface missiles to enhance deterrence vis-a-vis North Korea. Abe has not taken a public stand on these “counterstrike capabilities,” which would to give Japan the ability to neutralize North Korean ballistic missiles on their launchpads. This would be an abrupt change from a postwar defense policy that has remained strictly defensive, with few offensive capabilities.
Abe will also continue moderate spending increases on Japan’s air and naval capabilities in an attempt to counter China’s much higher spending on the People’s Liberation Army. The numerical balance of fighter aircraft and surface combatants has been steadily shifting in China’s favor for decades.
More recently, however, Xi has begun streamlining the PLA to strengthen its war-fighting effectiveness in preparation for a potential conflict in the Western Pacific. Abe knows that maintaining deterrence will require closer cooperation with the United States and continued reforms to break down the postwar barriers to the effectiveness of Japan’s own forces.
Will Abe revise Japan’s constitution?
The biggest obstacle to Japan developing a more “normal” military is Article 9 of the country’s postwar constitution. Under Article 9, Japan renounces the right of war to resolve international disputes and forswears the possession of ground, naval and air forces for that purpose.
Two years ago, Abe pushed through a reinterpretation of the constitution to allow new defense guidelines and operations with the United States and other like-minded states. Many in his party support revising the second half of Article 9 to declare that Japan’s military is constitutional, though intended only for self-defense.
Support from pacifist-leaning coalition partner Komeito will probably be forthcoming, and friendly governments such as the United States and Australia are likely to be supportive as well. China will protest, as might South Korea, but polls elsewhere in the region suggest that Japan has moved beyond its wartime image. Nevertheless, Article 9 is highly political and ideological; Abe will have to carry out his promise to build domestic consensus before proceeding.
How will this affect the U.S.-Japan alliance?
Despite President Trump’s harsh rhetoric about Japan during his election campaign, Abe has deftly engaged with the new administration in Washington and managed to build significant trust with Trump. Abe was the first foreign leader to visit Trump, and Trump will start his first Asia tour by spending several days in Japan in November.
Trump’s tough line on North Korea is likely to be well received in Japan, but his hostile view toward trade (particularly the rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership) continues to perplex Tokyo. Japanese leaders argue that allies should be leading on rulemaking to manage the mercantilist challenge from China.
Overall, the LDP’s election success is likely to maintain the opportunity for U.S. leaders to strengthen the alliance with Japan. However, their effectiveness will be determined by the ability to identify concrete steps to push the alliance forward.
Strong leadership in Tokyo is a critical piece of the puzzle, but it will have to be matched by clear direction from Washington if the allies are to truly bolster their relationships amid a worsening set of regional security concerns.
Michael Green is the senior vice president for Asia and the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and chair in modern and contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy at Georgetown University.
Zack Cooper is the senior fellow for Asian security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @ZackCooper.