PM Shinzo Abe wins big and talks tough, but unless he breaks with Washington, his options on North Korea are limited, writes David McNeill

Breakfast television in Japan is typically a frothy mélange of children’s cartoons, variety shows and soft news. Twice over the summer, however, the nation rubbed its eyes awake instead to warnings of North Korean missiles flying overhead. Broadcasts were interrupted; millions of people were told to shelter in ‘stout buildings or basements’.

Never mind that the missiles were far up in space, or that they splashed down into the sea hundreds of miles off Japan’s remote north. Or that the satellite-based J-Alert system, retooled (at a reputed cost of \100 billion, or $880 million) to deal with the menace of such tests gave people less than five minutes to flee. It was all supposed to show grit in the face of Pyongyang’s belligerence.

The twin fireworks show and Kim Jong-un’s threat to ‘sink’ Japan did have one concrete impact: they helped lift the sagging approval ratings of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In September he called a Lower House poll a year early to deal with what he called a national crisis. ‘This is an election to seek a mandate on how to protect Japan and how to carve out our children’s future,’ he said.

What initially seemed a risky decision paid off. On October 22, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner Komeito were returned to power with their two-thirds majority intact: 313 seats in the 465-member house. The win puts Abe on course to become the longest-serving leader in Japanese history in November 2019.After five years of sometimes deft political manoeuvering, few would bet against him achieving that milestone.

The dishevelled opposition parties proved to be arguably Abe’s most potent political weapon

The dishevelled opposition parties proved to be arguably his most potent political weapon. The Democratic Party (DP) folded just before the election, its conservative wing throwing in its lot with the new Party of Hope, set up by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike. After a rocket-like start, Hope quickly fizzled, undone by its eccentric platform (its pledges included ridding Japan of hay fever and crowded rush-hour trains) and Koike’s fatal decision to sit the election out.

TOOTHLESS TIGER: Japan’s SDF has not fired a shot in battle since its birth in 1954
TOOTHLESS TIGER: Japan’s SDF has not fired a shot in battle since its birth in 1954

A left-leaning rump that broke away from the DP, led by its former deputy president Yukio Edano, struggled to organise during the 12-day campaign but still managed to win 55 seats, triple its pre-election tally. That made Edano’s Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) the LDP’s closest rival, though with the dubious distinction of holding the fewest seats of any main opposition party since the birth of Japan’s postwar political system in 1955.

As he took to the nation’s TV screens after the results, Abe might have been forgiven for looking smug. He had finally driven a stake into the heart of the Democrats, the liberal upstarts who ran the nation from 2009 to 2012. He had silenced accusations of cronyism that dogged his government all year, and, for the time being, ended talk of an LDP leadership challenge. His party has been in power in a series of shifting coalitions for all but a handful of years since 1955, a level of domination unknown in the world’s liberal democracies.

Hawks have long demanded this toothless tiger grow some fangs

In his victory speech, Abe said he was committed to tackling Japan’s two biggest challenges – its aging, shrinking population and the growing threat from across the Japan Sea. ‘As I promised in the election, my imminent task is to firmly deal with North Korea… For that, strong diplomacy is required,’ he said. Many assume that means following through on his pledge to change Japan’s pacifist constitution and end the ambiguous status of the military.

Japan’s Self Defense Force (SDF) is one of the world’s odder armies. Its key role, for many Japanese, is disaster relief. It has not fired a shot in battle since its birth in 1954. Japan’s constitution, cobbled together over a few hectic days in 1946 by the victorious Americans, prohibits the maintenance of land, sea or air forces, though the SDF now has a larger navy than France and Britain combined, over 1,600 aircraft and four large flat-topped carriers.

Hawks have long demanded this toothless tiger grow some fangs. In a hostile neighborhood dominated by Cold War enemies Russia and China, the constitution became an anachronism, but its overwhelming popularity defeated all attempts to change it. The SDF was deemed legitimate only as the minimum necessary force ‘to protect the peace and independence of Japan’, while defence outside Japan came from the American military shield.

In 2015, the Abe government challenged the sanctity of Japan’s postwar pacifism by passing security bills ‘reinterpreting’ the constitution. The aim was to allow the now formidable SDF to engage in what Abe called ‘pro-active pacifism’ and become a more forceful partner to America. Earlier this year he took another step, setting out a plan to make explicit reference to the SDF in Article 9, Japan’s iconic pacifist clause, and so end its unconstitutional status.

The plan was much less radical that some feared – or that Abe’s more hawkish supporters wanted – but public support for tampering with Article 9 remains mixed at best, and the prime minister knows it. Divisive or not, however, it would solidify Abe’s legacy among LDP grandees who view the constitution as a shameful blot on the nation’s history. And it would satisfy conservatives who want Japan to take a more muscular role against North Korea, and China: some are pushing for pre-emptive military capabilities, such as cruise missiles that could destroy missiles before they launch.

Yet, though the LDP and like-minded parties now have the requisite two-thirds majority of both houses needed to table an amendment, it is still a tall order. The government must pass legislation, then call and win a national referendum, which is sure to energise its opponents. The surprisingly robust performance of Edano’s party, which rejects Abe’s proposed changes, suggests there is still life in Japan’s pacifist left.

The ‘diplomatic’ arm of Abe’s approach, meanwhile, has been to shun diplomacy. Instead, he has ridden sidecar with Donald Trump, who has ratcheted up pressure on Pyongyang. Both men say the time for talking to North Korea has passed. Japan has demanded tougher sanctions, and hinted at pushing for a ban on shipments of petrol and other fuel – rejected by China and Russia as too provocative.

With no breakthrough in sight, Japan’s defence ministry has requested another record-breaking military budget. Among the items on its shopping list is the Aegis Ashore, an American land-based anti-missile system that is supposed to augment the ship-based Aegis SM-3 and PAC-3 Patriot missiles on land. None of this expensive hardware has shown it can shoot down a single North Korean missile.

Some have urged Japan to resume bilateral or multilateral talks with the North, which were abandoned years ago. That, however, would require breaking with Washington, which Abe seems little inclined to do. Instead, Japan has joined in largely symbolic displays of military muscle with America and its South Korean ally. Both have for years staged biannual military drills that include a simulated nuclear strike. They are seen as a rehearsal for invasion by Pyongyang, which often responds with provocative military stunts.

In the absence of an end to the drills and a permanent peace treaty with Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, the North will probably continue to use military threats until it gets security guarantees, allowing it to rebuild its economy. Abe and Trump’s brinkmanship could simply be a stacking of the negotiating chips, and the prelude to the long-awaited talks.

Nobody wants to start a war, says Leonid Petrov, a North Korea expert at the Australian National University, ‘but a human error or technological mistake can bring the situation out of control’.

Refs: Election result:

Dr David McNeill writes for The Economist, The Irish Times and other international publications, and is co-author of Strong in the Rain, survivors’ stories from Japan’s 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. He teaches media and politics at Sophia University in Tokyo. Previously he taught at Liverpool John Moores University

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