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Can Abe Build Support for Security Reforms?

by Sheila A. Smith
July 14, 2014

Empty voting boxes are seen at a ballot counting center for the upper house election in Tokyo July 21, 2013 Empty voting boxes are seen at a ballot counting center for the upper house election in Tokyo July 21, 2013. (Yuya Shino/Courtesy Reuters)

Even as regional challenges to Japan’s security have intensified, the domestic debate over security reforms continues to reveal deep divisions in Japan. Since coming into office a year and a half ago, the Shinzo Abe cabinet has sought an overhaul of its security policy, including a revision of the U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation guidelines that shape alliance military planning. Abe’s predecessor, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), argued for similar alliance reforms. Upgrading alliance cooperation has not been an easy process as political change in Japan has created a complex legislative balance in the Diet.

Now that the LDP has returned to power under Abe’s leadership, there is a tendency to discount domestic opposition to policy change in Japan. With a majority in both houses of parliament, the Abe cabinet may seem to have a free hand as it seeks to push forward with its reforms. However, the parliament today is just as contentious as it was when the LDP’s challenger, the DPJ, was in power. With his sights set on reinterpreting Japan’s postwar constitution, Abe has run into considerable domestic resistance.

But the changes in Japanese politics run deeper than party rivalry and legislative contention. In my new report, Japan’s New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance, I look back at the effort to revamp Japan’s political system and its impact on alliance management. The alliance will not be immune to the broader effort to reform policymaking in Tokyo, and the strategic pressures on Japan are creating new calls for accountability in alliance management. Close cooperation between Tokyo and Washington, however, will rely on the ability of political leaders to craft a domestic consensus not only about their own military power but also about the role the alliance will play in shaping Japan’s strategic choices.

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  • Posted by Frank Baldwin

    The article is a useful review of recent developments, particularly the objectives of Washington policymakers. However, the conclusion is confusing and unrealistic.The author says: “It is in the interest of the United States to ensure that any changes Abe makes are fully supported by the Japanese people.” How could the Obama administration “ensure” that? Should the U.S. government publicly call upon Prime Minister Abe to hold a national referendum? What percentage of a pro-revision vote would constitue fully support? Please clarify.

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