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Constitutional, foreign policies bolster PM Abe’s bid in LDP presidential elections on September 20 – Japan Analysis

Executive Summary

Presidential elections within the ruling-Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will take place on September 20, with incumbent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba competing for the leadership spot.

Proposed constitutional amendments are expected to be a major sticking point in the election, and might ultimately boost PM Abe’s favorability.

A series of domestic scandals have impacted PM Abe’s approval ratings, but are they unlikely to single-handedly block his electoral prospects.

PM Abe’s proactive foreign diplomacy agenda thus far is likely to bolster his campaign due to perceptions of stability associated with his engagement on the North Korea issue.

Travel to Japan can continue as normal while adhering to basic security precautions regarding protests.

Current Situation

On August 10, former Defense Minister, Shigeru Ishiba, formally announced his candidacy for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) internal presidential elections, which are slated for September 20. On August 26, incumbent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his own candidacy, which, if elected, would place him in contention to become Japan’s longest-serving post-war leader and extend his term to 2021. According to reports from September 7, PM Abe already holds support from five of the party’s seven factions, representing approximately 257 parliamentary votes, whereas Ishiba’s support was recorded at only 20. A third candidate withdrew from the race on August 31 due to insufficient support.

Reports from August 15 indicate that PM Abe intends on introducing LDP-drafted legislation for revising the constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 during the next parliamentary session in the coming months. Ishiba advised caution on August 17 in regards to the proposed amendments, claiming that PM Abe’s LDP-drafted legislation has yet to be approved by the entire party. Meanwhile, multiple scandals in 2017 have affected PM Abe’s approval ratings in recent months. This included the reappearance of a scandal from the previous year involving the leader’s wife and a land deal, unreported activity logs regarding Japanese troops in Iraq, and allegations of sexual assault against a Finance Ministry bureaucrat close to him. As a result, PM Abe’s public approval ratings have fluctuated since March, reaching as low as 27 percent.

At the present time, Japan continues to play a vital role in multiple foreign-policy initiatives, including a multinational Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and a Pacific security strategy embraced by Washington. Regionally, Japan has a stake in the ongoing negotiations with North Korea. Reports from August 29 indicate that Japanese and North Korean officials held a secret meeting in July, while speculation has emerged over a potential meeting between leaders of the two countries in the near term, although this has yet to be confirmed. Globally, PM Abe maintains a close relationship with US President Donald Trump, having met at least eight times since Trump took office. This comes amid ongoing trade measures by Washington, which includes auto tariffs that may impact Japan.


Proposed constitutional amendments will inform elections as a major talking point

Amendments to the country’s constitution have been a longstanding debate due to Japan’s history as a perceived antagonistic power and fears that replacing the decades-old pacifist character may lead to a revival of the country’s past militarism. Given these fears, large sections of LDP appear to favor a more moderate and gradual approach in order to avoid completely alienating grassroots support for the ruling party. In this context, the LDP is unlikely to support Ishiba on the basis of constitutional amendments given his relatively more radical views. For instance, Ishiba has campaigned for the removal of Paragraph 2 in Article 9, which has denied Japan’s “right to belligerency”. Instead, PM Abe is likely the favorable choice given his relatively more moderate approach. Additionally, electing him to the position would provide leadership stability and may improve the party’s chances of effecting constitutional change.

In terms of a timeline for introducing the constitutional changes, PM Abe appears more proactive than his rival. Ishiba has stated that he preferred the revisions remain on the back burner and called for legislative caution on August 18. His reticence likely stems from fears that overtly disagreeing with the party-backed policy will impact his success. However, this is likely to be viewed as uncertainty in Ishiba’s platform, impacting his chances of defeating PM Abe in the elections. Meanwhile, Abe has announced his intentions to introduce the LDP-drafted bills in the near term. This highlights his attempts to retain party backing among the various factions by using LDP-backed legislation.

Domestic scandals impact PM Abe’s approval ratings, but unlikely to entirely diminish prospects

A number of recent scandals may have eroded PM Abe’s public favorability gains and appeared to have boosted Ishiba’s confidence to challenge the incumbent leader, despite having failed in three consecutive LDP leadership elections since 2008. In 2012, Ishiba achieved a majority from rank-and-file party members, which he likely believed may happen again in the upcoming race given the prime minister’s significantly deteriorated approval ratings. This possibility emerged as a result of a surge in public opposition against PM Abe in March, due to concerns over abuses of power and government cover-ups in recent scandals. This also has seemingly informed Ishiba’s election platform, which is based on reforms for an “honest and fair” government.

Despite this, PM Abe is liable to recover from the scandal allegations, as was similarly witnessed in the 2017 snap elections, which resulted in the LDP’s super-majority. At this time, PM Abe has already started exhibiting a similar upswing in more recent public approval ratings, which was recorded at approximately 44 percent as of August 26, in comparison to the 26.7 percent in April. PM Abe’s party approval from five of the seven factions further highlights the broad nature of his intra-party appeal. While scandal allegations may affect the margins of support he may eventually draw, the current numbers indicate that the scandals themselves are unlikely to single-handedly block PM Abe’s candidacy.

PM Abe’s foreign policy agenda likely increases electability due to perceptions of stability

Japan’s role in various foreign initiatives thus far can be attributed in part to PM Abe’s foreign policy agenda. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) remains a relevant trade agreement among 11 international partners, despite the US’ withdrawal in 2017, due to Japan’s initiative in leading negotiations thereafter. The agreement’s success may contribute to positive perceptions surrounding PM Abe’s abilities to ensure Japan’s interests are addressed in multilateral forums in the region.

Despite the US’ move regarding the TPP, PM Abe maintains a relatively positive relationship with US President Donald Trump, as demonstrated by numerous meetings between the two leaders in recent months. A continuation of this relationship will likely be a major priority for voting members. In the context of Washington’s recent trade tariffs, PM Abe’s relations with President Trump may be seen as an asset, given its potential use in minimizing the effects of automobile industry-specific tariffs on Tokyo.

Furthermore, these relations are vital in the context of regional threats, given that the US is in negotiations with Japan’s primary external security concern, North Korea. PM Abe’s hardline stance on North Korea and push for the greater visibility of Tokyo’s position in future regional dialogue will further aid his campaign. These include concerns over the alleged North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens and the security threat from future missile tests or failure to denuclearize at an adequate pace. The government has demonstrated its support for the prime minister’s stance by approving a military budget increase, although this is pending parliamentary approval. Given Tokyo’s eagerness to ensure its position is well represented in future regional dialogue on North Korea, the LDP may be motivated to retain its current leader. Further, Abe is slated to visit China in October, the first time a sitting Japanese leader has done so since 2011.  Perceptions of stability associated with PM Abe amid these ongoing foreign policy initiatives will help shore up support for his presidency of the LDP.


Travel security – travel to Japan can continue as normal while adhering to basic security precautions regarding protests.

In Tokyo, allow for additional travel time near the Prime Minister’s Office and National Diet, due to the frequency of protests at these locations.

How will ruling party’s landslide victory in Japanese election affect security and stance on North Korea? – Japan Analysis

Current Situation

Japan held nationwide general elections on October 22 to appoint 465 people to the House of Representatives, the country’s Lower House of parliament. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), as well as the newly established Party of Hope (PoH) and Japanese Communist Party (JCP), were all vying for seats. The traditional primary opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DP), decided not to field any candidates after a crushing defeat to LDP in 2012. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) was formed after a split from the DP in October 2017, further weakening the once powerful DP.

The LDP secured 284 seats out of a total of 312 seats obtained by the ruling coalition while the CDPJ came second with a seat share of 55 seats. PoH came in third with 50 seats.

The snap elections were called after PM Abe dissolved the Lower House on September 28, citing the administration’s need for a fresh mandate to deal with contentious subjects like intensified North Korean hostilities and controversies surrounding domestic social welfare policies. PM Abe has also long called for reforms to Japan’s pacifist constitution, a highly emotive proposition in a largely pacifist Japanese society.

The PM’s approval rating had witnessed a notable dip in July 2017 following allegations of his involvement in a number of scandals involving cronyism. However, polls taken in September suggested that the approval ratings bounced back in the immediate aftermath of North Korea’s firing of two ballistic missiles over Japanese airspace during the month. PM Abe is considered to maintain a hawkish stance regarding Pyongyang’s provocations.

PoH leader Yuriko Koike, a former LDP lawmaker and the current governor of Tokyo, announced the formation of her party in September, attempting to contrast the relatively hawkish policies of the ruling government by calling for more tempered policy vis-a-vis North Korea, a freeze in tax hikes, and the establishing of a 2030 deadline to eliminate nuclear power plants. Despite their stated differences, critics claimed that the party was too ideologically similar to the ruling LDP and that it failed to offer feasible policy alternatives.

How will ruling party’s landslide victory in Japanese election affect security and stance on North Korea? - Japan Analysis | MAX Security

Assessments & Forecast

Opposition weaknesses, PM Abe’s tough stance towards North Korea likely served as key determinants in LDP’s retention of super-majority in parliament

PM Abe’s decision to call for snap elections was likely influenced by the recent surge in his approval ratings, perceived to largely stem from his tough stance on North Korea. As tensions with Pyongyang reached unprecedented heights in recent months, culminating in the missile launches over Japan on August 29 and September 15, PM Abe’s attempts to foster a more offensive-capable military by revising Japan’s pacifist constitution became increasingly palatable to the general public. The resounding nature of the victory highlighted current priorities of the Japanese general public, which may have placed the PM’s alleged involvement in scandal and feelings of anti-incumbency as secondary when compared to direct security threats from Pyongyang.

Another significant factor in the victory was the perceived lack of a viable alternative, as the newly created PoH was too weak to pose a legitimate electoral challenge to the ruling party. Apart from the party’s inability to significantly distinguish itself from the LDP in terms of policy, another significant factor was Koike’s decision not to participate in the election itself but rather remain as the party head. Voters likely perceived this as an attempt by Koike to hedge her bets, using the election as an opportunity to test the political waters while still maintaining her position as the current governor of Tokyo.

How will ruling party’s landslide victory in Japanese election affect security and stance on North Korea? - Japan Analysis | MAX Security

PM Abe unlikely to push for amendment of constitution in the immediate term due to contentious status in society, US pressure

PM Abe will likely use the LDP’s electoral gains as evidence that the society is supportive of revisions to the country’s post-World War II pacifist constitution, which the leader has suggested he aims to amend by 2020. Conversely, as of present, only the CDPJ remains vocally opposed to the constitutional review. The PM will likely highlight the poor electoral performance of the CDPJ as an indication of growing public consensus regarding Japan’s evolving regional security environment.

Before dealing with the constitution, the new government’s immediate priority will likely remain economic recovery and containing the North Korean threat, particularly as the snap election was called by PM Abe as a mandate on the government’s handling of those issues and not the constitutional review. Despite strong support for the LDP and his candidacy, PM Abe continues to maintain low approval ratings. The fact that the election victory was at least partially the result of a lack of credible alternatives to the Japanese public, movement on more contentious issues like the constitution will likely continue to be met with severe backlash. Even LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito, which is open to a constitutional review, has indicated that it will still likely be an “opposition within the coalition” on the matter.

As such, the PM would likely not push for reforms in the immediate term, instead, using geopolitical triggers that the country can rally behind as evidence of the necessity for such changes, such as a dramatic escalation in North Korea tensions or perceived aggressive movements by Beijing in the Spratly Islands. Even though the LDP has a supermajority, since it is such an emotive issue, PM Abe is unlikely to attempt to alter the constitution without some form of a unity government, especially given that many opposition parties have expressed their willingness to hold a review of the 70-year-old constitution. Their motivations for expressing willingness are likely an attempt to have some degree of influence over the deliberations on the changes.

PM Abe’s hardline stance against North Korea in recent months has seemingly paid off in the eyes of the general populace. This suggests that the Japanese PM will attempt to double down on his hawkish stance, further supporting aggressive sanctions against North Korea with strong mechanisms for enforcing them. He is also likely to continue his policy of non-negotiation with Pyongyang. While US President Donald Trump is especially supportive of PM Abe, the US is unlikely to support the constitutional reform, as the move will likely be viewed by both Beijing and Seoul, both of which suffered under Japan’s World War II expansion, as provocative and destabilizing. Further, it may complicate the long-standing military relationship between the two nations.

US relations with Japan likely to see improvement under new administration

FORECAST: The controversial constitutional changes aside, overall, Japan’s relations with the US are likely to improve as a result of Abe’s landslide election victory, given the convergence of strategic interests on several issues including regional security. It is also important to note PM Abe’s seemingly excellent interpersonal relationship with US President Donald Trump. In contrast to the leaders of other traditional US-allied nations like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, who have been critical of the newly-elected US President, Abe’s efforts have thus far focused exclusively on charming Trump. This includes Abe’s visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort just one week after he was elected, as well as over a dozen phone calls between the two since the President took office. It was reported that President Trump asked a group of congressmen in mid-June why they could not be more like Shinzo Abe. This closeness will likely be especially apparent in the coming week when the US President is expected to visit Japan as part of his November overseas trip.

This relatively unique relationship may compel PM Abe to push for increased defense cooperation with the US, with a particular focus on bolstering Japan’s ballistic missile defense capabilities. It also remains possible he will use the constitutional review as leverage over the US, as having additional close protection services from its ally would minimize the justifications for needing an offensive military force. This would also alleviate recently growing sentiments in Japanese society, which see Washington’s inability to come to Tokyo’s aid and deter Pyongyang’s repeated ballistic missile launches and threatening rhetoric as an indication that the country must defend itself.

PM Abe’s successful reelection will nevertheless be perceived as a favorable result by Washington with respect to the US-Japan alliance. Similarly, regional neighbors concerned by Beijing’s maritime expansionism, like Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, are also expected to welcome the election results, as PM Abe has visibly strengthened defense relations with these actors during his term in office.