Japan Is Right to Ramp Up Its Military

Reinterpreting the constitution.

Photographer: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

In the face of widespread public opposition, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is preparing to ram through measures to deepen security cooperation with the U.S. Abe is right when he says such laws are vital to Japan's security. They also stand to benefit allies in need around the world, especially the U.S. However, the onus is on Abe to make that case to his confused and angry populace. 

The raft of defense bills in question is meant to legitimize Abe's reinterpretation of the country's pacifist constitution and free up Japan's military to support American and other allied forces in conflicts far from home. Opposition has swelled since early June, when a trio of well-regarded experts appeared before the Diet and questioned the legislation's constitutionality. Eighty percent of Japanese citizens now say the government hasn't explained the new measures or their implications well enough. Ruling party leaders have rudely dismissed constitutional concerns -- some have even threatened to retaliate against unfriendly newspapers. 

Abe is rushing the bills through the lower house, where his Liberal Democratic Party enjoys a two-thirds majority, precisely because he's afraid they'll founder in the upper house. This way, if the upper house doesn't approve them within 60 days, the lower house will be able to ratify them on its own before the end of the current Diet session in late September. 

Abe's grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was Japan's prime minister in 1960, himself forced through a military treaty with the U.S. against the popular will. Violent protests at that time led Kishi to step down. Abe, in contrast, has enough support in the Diet to ride out any backlash. 

That doesn't mean he won't pay a price in political capital, however. He still needs to sell the controversial concessions he'll have to make to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with the U.S., not to mention the tough structural economic reforms he keeps promising as part of his vaunted "third arrow." An especially bitter fight could also make it harder for Abe and future leaders to carry out the new security laws. 

At this point, there's little chance that Abe will delay the bills until the next Diet session or call a referendum to confirm public support for the measures. But he can still use the time between now and the end of September to make clear to the Japanese people that the new measures are far more modest than they're being made out to be. They open the door for Japan to participate in joint South China Sea patrols, for instance, and to provide for rear-area military support to allies. By being vague about the scenarios under which they might come into play, Abe only encourages people's worst fears. 

Ultimately, Abe's real problem is a lack of public trust. Given his well-deserved reputation as a nationalist hardliner, voters expect that he will stretch whatever powers the new legislation gives him. He has a perfect opportunity to change this narrative in August, when he gives a widely anticipated speech marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. While Japan's territorial disputes with China, Russia and South Korea aren't about to disappear overnight, a truly contrite message from Abe could go a long way toward easing the historical tensions that have long plagued relations in Northeast Asia. It would also alleviate Japanese citizens' concerns about the prime minister's hawkishness.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.