Foreign Policy Blogs

LDP Victory Marks the Path Toward the Constitutional Reform

LDP Victory Marks the Path Toward the Constitutional Reform

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviewing the Japan Self Defence Forces at the Asaka Base, during the SDF Day on October 2013.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s victory in the Upper House elections on July 10 marks a memorable success for the Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition. The LDP and its main coalition ally, the  Buddhist-inspired New Komeito managed to secure together 77 out of the 78 seats, required to gain the supermajority, alongside four independents lawmakers willing to support Abe’s Constitutional Reform agenda.


Source: Mainichi Shimbun

Conservative MPs have the number to pursue the long-awaited amendment on the controversial Article 9 of the Constitution that has prevented Japan since the end of the WWII to complete its process of normalization. Article 9 states that” the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international dispute” and it also embodies the ultimate legacy of the post-war economic and strategic regional architecture shaped by Washington in the aftermath of the WWII.

Any Constitutional amendments as regards the war-renouncing clause would then be subject to a national referendum. While in the last few years, Abe Administration has achieved important achievements in pushing its defense policy agenda, calling openly for the revision of the Constitution, a poll from the Asahi Shimbun released last May, shows that a 55% of the Japanese citizens are not in favor of further emendation of the Constitution.


Source: Asahi Shimbun

Despite rising opposition within the Diet, Abe Administration has promoted an ambitious project aiming at recalibrating the strategic role of Japan, based on the “Proactive contribution to Peace” (sekkyokuteki heiwashugi) doctrine, fulfilling the obligations and the requirements needed to shift from a long tradition of reluctant realism toward a more defined role as a security provider.

Since 2012, the Kantei has focused its efforts on fostering a wide number of defense reforms, including  the establishment of the first-ever National Security Council (NSC), a comprehensive National Security Strategy (NSS), and more relevant the upgrade of the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), coupled with the end of the self-imposed ban on weapon exportation and the controversial reinterpretation of the U.N. sanctioned right to collective self-defense.

The emerging of a series of severe threat to Japan’s security and prosperity and the evident shift in the regional strategic power balance have indeed galvanized the sense of insecurity, stressing the need for Tokyo to remain vigilant, but also calling for a more assertive role in the protection of its core interest, but also stressing the priority in pursuing its own foreign policy agenda.

In the last decades, Asia-Pacific region has become the epicenter of a large number of strategic trends, crisis and confrontations and shifts in balance of power, fueling a massive arms-race through the region. The acceleration of Pyongyang’s dreadful nuclear program and the restless expansion of China’s territorial ambitions have surely contributed to a radical departure from Japan’s post-war pacifism, inspiring Japan’s political leadership to advance a more effective defense policy, able to respond to the growing concerns about regional security.

Japan and the US: toward a close relation 

In September 2015, Abe Administration finalized the new security legislation allowing the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), to fight alongside and defend an ally under attack even if its forces were not directly attacked. Therefore, Japan forces would also lawfully shoot down a North Korean missile targeting the US territory, marking an unprecedented phase in the US-Japan strategic cooperation.

The new legal framework provides Japan with a wider authority to deploy the SDF globally to join multinational peacekeeping operations promptly, without requiring the issue of special and temporary legislation as occurred during the SDF limited participation in Afghanistan and Iraq operations.

Since the end of the WWII, Japan has become a fundamental piece, within Washington’s regional strategic architecture. While the US played a critical role in recalibrating the role and the function of Japan as its most allegiant ally during the Cold War, Japan’s formidable ability to adapt itself to a new international system has allowed the country to accelerate its reintegration in the international system and to restore its position among the major power.

Today Japan is the fundamental pillar of the American strategy to the Asia-Pacific region and their close strategic cooperation has been established since 1951, when both countries signed the US-Japan security treaty that unilaterally committed Washington to Japan’s security in return for the exclusive use of military basis, located on Japan’s territory, with approximately 50.000 servicemen currently stationed.

The image of Japan as a pacifist nation has been consolidated during the Cold War, when Washington’s determination of imposing a new security architecture in East Asia was accompanied by the turmoil of confrontation with the Soviet Union in the region. Through the Yoshida Doctrine, Japan political leaders wisely prevented any risks of entanglements, focusing on industrial and economic reconstruction.

Yet, the emerging of the multipolar system, the slow but constant decline of Japan’s economic power in the 1990s pushed the emerging political leadership to abandon its longstanding mercantile realism, initiating a debate over Japan’s future strategic engagement.

Finally, the prolonged period of political passivity that characterized  Japan’s society since the beginning of the Heisei Era, has been replaced by a deep sense of insecurity as a consequence of international political turmoil that has redefined the international scenario after 9/11.

The Japanese participation in the peacekeeping operations represented an important step in the process of “normalization”, raising the internal debate concerning the contribution of Japan to the global peace and how this new approach could represent an important opportunity for expanding the level engagement on the international scenario.

During the last fifteen years, the foundation of Japan’s grand strategy has remained anchored on the acquisition of defense measures, the reinvigoration of the US-Japan alliance and the pursuing of an independent agenda based on the implementation of security cooperation with ASEAN countries.


Source: Agence France-Presse


Source: Rand Corporation

Since Obama Administration launched the Rebalance to Asia in 2011, Tokyo has massively expanded its strategic ties with the US, gradually extending its level of engagement in the region either to consolidate its role in the promotion of regional peace and cooperation or as a close strategic partner in deterring the rising threat represented by the DPRK.

Enhancing the level of strategic cooperation with Washington remains one of the most adamant goals for Abe Administration, whose determination to extensively reform its security policies has been saluted by Washington with great enthusiasm.

In April 2015, Japan unveiled the new guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, redefining the role of Japan within strategic cooperation and defense mechanisms at a wider level. Through the reinterpretation of article 9, Abe Administration has achieved an important goal in pursuing a revolutionary change in Japan’s Security policy. Yet, an extensive Constitutional reform, able to amend the constraints remains the most important legacy that Abe Administration is determined to leave behind.

The implications of Japan’s shift in defense policy have a huge impact on the strategic partnership with Washington in the promotion of peace and stability as stressed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his last state visit to Washington. In comparison with the Cold War time, when the role of the SDF was extremely limited, there was no integration with the US forces, no joint command or interoperability, radical change have been fostered under Abe Administration.

Nowadays, under the caveats of the NSS, the SDF have evolved in one of the most well prepared and well-equipped forces in the world, highly trained to intervene in the case of grey zone situations, especially as regards to maritime security, the main source of friction with China in the region.

Due to its geographic position, Japan is surrounded by miles of coastlines, remote islands, extensive economic zones and it is located in the epicenter of a vast sensitive SLOCS, potentially exposed to the PRC’s rising territorial claims. Japan remains committed to expansion a Dynamic Joint Defence Force, to conduct a diverse range of operations based on the ability to quickly deter direct and indirect threats to Japan’s sovereignty, people and core interest.

In order to achieve this goal, Japan is expected to continue to expand joint training and exercises, ISR activities while increasing the level of cooperation with new potential partners such as Australia, India and the ASEAN.

Relevant security integration initiatives such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defense Ministers ‘Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) and the East Asia Summit (EAS) represent important opportunities for Tokyo to foster a new level of multilateral engagement and eventually promote its own regional security agenda.

Japan needs to establish a more autonomous role inside the security framework provided by the U.S.-Japan Security and the  Cooperation Treaty. More important it needs to pursue a more dynamic foreign policy agenda, overcoming the endless spiral of frictions that has characterized the Sino-Japanese relations and establishing trust-building measures within international and regional organization, critical to prevent dreadful escalations that could jeopardize the fragile balance in the region.

During its last mandate, Abe Administration has shown an adamant determination to foster a revolutionary change in Japan’s defense and foreign policy. For the first time since the end of the WWII, the revision of the constitution could be finalized by two major parties with more than two-thirds of both Lower and Upper houses.

Yet, the path towards the revision of the article 9 remains uncertain. Abe Administration understands that importance of seizing the momentum. Missing the opportunity would surely affect any future attempts to foster a constitutional revision.

Yet, an extensive attempt to amend radically the Constitutions would be a risky move. Half of the Japanese population still opposes to the revision and a referendum will be required in any case, before finalizing the procedure of revision.

In addition, any attempt to amend the article 9 could be saluted by large protests. It has been debated over the possibility of introducing a new article able to expand the discretion of the PM to employ the SDF during the emergency, as advocated by the New Komeito. Nevertheless, this could ultimately represent an obstacle to the expansion of the level of assertiveness of Japan, limiting the expansion of the SDF role either on a regional level or globally and ultimately downsizing Abe’s ambitions, finally close to their realization.

If Abe Administration manages to overcome the potential impasse it will achieve a historical turning point either for the nation or for the strategic partnership with Washington. Looking toward the future, Japan has the capability to become a critical actor inside the regional security framework advocated by Washington.

Yet, it still  requires a gradual but marked transformation of its policies to achieve a viable political and strategic structure through relevant institutional changes, required to support the new trajectory of the foreign policy drafted by Abe government and characterized by a new strategic engagement in the regional and international level.



Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, the DPRK and Chinese foreign policy. He also writes for Global Risk Insights. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito