In order to be a world leader, Japan must show empathy as well as strength
“A small supermajority”. That’s an oxymoron if ever I heard one. However phrased, the result of Japan’s snap general election is that the ruling coalition have retained a two-thirds majority in the ‘lower’ House of Representatives. Why is this a big deal? According to almost every news outlet which has covered the story since, because it means that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can legitimately push for significant constitutional reform.
The defining feature of the Japanese constitution, conceived during the Allied Forces’ post-war occupation of Japan, is its explicit pacifist makeup. Precisely dictated in Article 9 of the document, is the dedication to “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes”. As if it weren’t clear enough, this is backed up by the declaration that “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained”.
Such clarity was apparently lacking for Abe in 2015, when legislation was forced through which allowed Japan’s previously existing Self Defence Forces (SDFs) to engage in combat abroad if it could qualify as “collective self-defense” in support of allies. At the time this was seen as a bold reinterpretation of Article 9 and many law experts have branded the legislation changes unconstitutional. The slippery-slope argument has also been aired, particularly since Abe declared his desire to revise the constitution itself at its 70th anniversary celebration earlier this year.
With the growing volatility of neighbouring China, and particularly North Korea, as well as the inability to truly rely on the Trump administration in the US, Abe’s case has a footing it couldn’t have mustered even 18 months ago. Having run on a platform explicitly promoting reform, securing a super-majority might be seen as a mandate to engage in just that. Splits in the opposition, and the second-lowest turnout since the war however, may have disguised what is in reality, according to opinion polls, still a society largely opposed to renouncing pacifism.
Indeed, speaking to the Guardian, Koichi Nakano of Sophia University in Tokyo said that due to “faults in Japan’s first past the post electoral system there is a huge gap between public opinion on key issues and the distribution of seats in the Diet”. Crucially he questioned whether Abe “has a real mandate” despite the fact that “the LDP won by a landslide”. Satoshi Machidori of Kyoto University disagreed though. Sunday’s result, he said, would clearly mark a change in conversation from “whether to reform” the constitution, to “how to revise” it.
With opinion so divided even among experts it is clear that a super-majority alone will not be enough to sway public opinion. A significant media campaign would be required in order to guarantee a positive result for the government in any referendum they wish to hold. Some are already looking at implications beyond potential constitutional change, too. Japan is known to be unhappy with the current formation of the UN Security Council, and has called for an increase in the number of both permanent and non-permanent members. It is also said to be seeking an influx of Japanese staff into the UN, as the 9.68% of the UN budget which Japan provides stands in stark contrast to the mere 2.62% of permanent UN staff who are Japanese.
All of this points to Japan’s desire to increase its influence in world affairs, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres recently confirmed his intention to visit the nation before the new year. Gutteres is expected to discuss North Korea as well as global warming, but during his time as UN High Commissioner for Refugees he used his position to criticise Japan’s asylum policy. This needed to be, in his words, “more effective in the reception and in the recognition and integration of refugees in Japanese society”.
Here is evidence of another major issue in Japanese politics, dwarfed by coverage of potential constitutional changes since the election result, but nonetheless something which has been widely discussed in recent years; that is, Japan’s uncongenial relationship with immigration. Immigration isn’t all that popular in Europe either, granted, but Japan’s longstanding animosity towards multiculturalism has started to take its toll. The population is now aging to such an extent that the number of workers in the country is projected to fall by 7.9 million before 2030.
Combatting this isn’t as easy as opening the floodgates. Immigration is incredibly unpopular in Japan, so any government attempts to increase it have necessarily fallen far short of an explicit embrace of foreigners. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the actual approach has constituted “a concerted effort to improve immigrant retention and boost recruitment incrementally under existing immigration policy.” This has resulted in gradual increases, through means as diverse as simplifying short-term visa applications with the justification of improving tourism, and the introduction of a High Skilled Foreign Professional visa in 2012.
2,642 of the latter were issued in 2015, a large number in comparison with the 27 refugees Japan accepted in the same year; 27 of 7,500 applications. While the negative effects of uncommonly low immigration of workers into Japan are self-inflicted, the country fails to show empathy towards people who have been forced to flee from their own. The Japanese government doesn’t tend to accept war refugees as eligible for asylum, proven by the startling statistic that between 2011 and 2016 Japan only granted asylum to 7 Syrian nationals. This seems even more striking when considering Japan’s status as the fourth-highest contributor to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees last year.
Many believe that in order to really be a leading influence, Japan must show willing to take a greater burden of international responsibility. This inevitably involves balance. While some in the international community would consider pacifism outdated and irresponsible in a nuclear world, they must show empathy as well as strength. As important as demonstrating a robust defence of their allies, is accepting those in real danger with open arms. Japan’s record on foreign aid spending shows they are concerned with the well-being of those outside their own shores. It now has the chance to emerge as a real international leader in re-establishing a peaceful world.