Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s bills to expand the role of the military will go to a lower house vote Thursday, after weeks of debate that has eroded his support and sparked opposition protests that echo those that toppled his grandfather more than half a century ago.
The bills were approved Wednesday in a special security committee session marked by jostling, shouting and even tears from placard-holding opposition lawmakers that almost drowned out the chairman’s voice. They are all but certain to pass due to the ruling coalition’s two-thirds majority. If the upper house refuses to take up the bills, a second vote in the lower house can pass them into law with a two-thirds majority.
They legislation enshrines in law Abe’s 2014 reinterpretation of the pacifist constitution and would allow Japan to defend other countries as part of a strategy to balance a rising China. Media polls show the majority of voters are opposed to the changes and disapproval of the cabinet now surpasses approval.
Abe’s determination to ram the laws through parliament risks a further fall in support from a public skeptical of extending the military’s remit, and exposing cracks in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Even so, it will help firm up defense ties with the U.S., and allow him to focus on economic policy in elections for the upper chamber next year.
“There will be an uproar within the ruling coalition,” independent political analyst Minoru Morita said of the likely fallout from the legislation. “The Abe administration will get through the crisis, but go into a difficult period.”
Organizers of demonstrations outside the parliament building said 20,000 people attended a protest on July 10, and hope 100,000 will take to the streets over the next three evenings. Tokyo police were unable to provide an estimate of numbers for either last week’s rally or a projection for protests this week.
In 1960, massive rallies were led by students and trade unions against the ratification of a security treaty with the U.S. The demonstrations, which sometimes turned violent, helped bring about the resignation of Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi as prime minister.
The biggest protests in recent years were anti-nuclear rallies after the Fukushima meltdown in 2011, with one event at a Tokyo park attracting an estimated 170,000 people. The current demonstrations over the security bills could grow even larger than that this summer, according to Koichi Nakano, professor of politics at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Prior to Wednesday’s vote, Abe told committee members that the legislation was needed because of changes in the power balance of both the world and the Asia-Pacific region. “The security legislation is needed so that Japan can respond without pause,” he said.
In the same session, opposition Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Kiyomi Tsujimoto wept as she made her case against the bills. “I can’t accept the forcible passage of the bills,” she said. “The Abe administration should step down.”
Unpopular changes in security policy are by no means the only challenges facing Abe in the coming weeks. His handling of next month’s 70th anniversary of the end of World War II risks undermining a fragile recovery in ties with China. The approaching re-start of a nuclear reactor following the 2011 Fukushima disaster is sparking protests.
Even Abe’s success in winning the right to host the 2020 Olympics has recently been overshadowed by a controversy over the ballooning cost of the main stadium. Surveys show most respondents want the design changed, while Abe has said it is too late for a rethink.
A poll carried out by public broadcaster NHK from July 10-12 showed Abe’s support fell 7 percentage points to 41 percent. Disapproval leaped to 43 percent from 34 percent.
Nonetheless, none of the opposition parties has gathered substantial voter support and no potential candidates have emerged to run against Abe in the LDP leadership election set for September.
“His support rate will of course fall after the passage of the bills,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a politics professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. “I think the administration has some policy with news value in mind to restore support after that. Abe will be re-elected.”
(A previous version of this story gave the name of the wrong academic in the final paragraph.)