TOKYO: Japan’s nationalist leader has rammed through legislation allowing the nation’s troops to fight abroad, but analysts say fierce opposition at home and overseas could make it difficult actually to use the laws.
Parliament in the officially pacifist nation passed the contentious security bills early Saturday, a move that could see Japanese troops engage in combat overseas for the first time since the end of World War II.
The legislation has sparked unprecedented angry street protests with tens of thousands taking part, prompted threats of a legal challenge, and fuelled anger among Japan’s neighbors.
China and the two Koreas, which suffered harsh Japanese occupations in the 20th century, all blasted the new laws.
The legislation will give the government the power to send the military into overseas conflicts to defend allies, even if Japan itself is not under attack.
Abe sees them as necessary to protect against threats from China and North Korea, but opponents fear the vague wording could see Japan dragged into far-flung foreign conflicts similar to the US invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan.
“After observing stronger than initially expected opposition, speculation is rising that the new laws are politically difficult to actually use,” said Tomoaki Iwai, professor of politics at Nihon University.
“Public support for the Abe administration will decline, if temporarily, after enacting the bills amid doubt whether the legislation is constitutional.”
Public approval for Abe’s cabinet has fallen to 38.9 percent from 43.2 percent in mid-August, with a majority of respondents opposing the bills, a Kyodo News poll showed Sunday.
Any lawsuit aimed at overturning the legislation could take years to wind its way through various lower courts before reaching the Supreme Court.
But Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party faces upper-house elections next summer. While a loss would not force a change of government, it would mark a significant blow to the 60-year-old leader and his party, underlining the political toll the new laws have taken.
“Abe’s government could last long but his political capital will decline gradually,” said Tetsuro Kato, professor emeritus at Hitotsubashi University, noting that the official opposition is weak and Abe has no meaningful rivals within his party.
The constitution imposed by a post-war US occupation force barred Japan’s military from combat except in self-defense.
Abe opted to “re-interpret” the meaning of self-defense to push through the new laws, but sparked a groundswell of opposition not seen for decades.
A majority of legal scholars have said the changes are unconstitutional and threaten the foundation of the rule of law, a view shared by the national bar association.
“The defense ministry will be cautious in taking action based on the new laws, as they are the ones who could see casualties,” Iwai added.
Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have not fired a gun in anger for 70 years. But that could now change depending on future geopolitical developments.
“Exactly when the new law will be used depends on the international situation and it could be this year, next year or maybe not for years ahead,” said Kato.
If a situation arose in which Japanese troops suffered casualties, “that would become a serious political problem,” Kato said.
Opponents of the legislation have vowed to take the issue to court and are seeking a Supreme Court ruling that the laws are unconstitutional.
But analysts said there were only slim hopes the laws could be overturned in court.
“As Japan doesn’t have a constitutional court, if the case is brought to the district court it may be rejected initially because there has been no tangible damage to anyone from the legislation itself,” Kato said.
“And if it is accepted by the district court, it would take years before the supreme court gives a verdict,” he said.
“But opponents are not really expecting a Supreme Court decision. They are trying to compile legal precedents at district court level that the laws are unconstitutional,” said Kato.
To claw back some of the support he lost over the security legislation, Abe is expected to focus on economic policy and diplomacy including improving ties with China, said Iwai of Nihon University.
Mikitaka Masuyama, a politics professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said Abe may be able to ride out the storm if he can bolster the faltering economy.
“Among those who oppose the bills, many people who don’t have strong opinions on the issue may soon lose interest and focus on their daily lives,” Masuyama said.
“If Abenomics succeeds in rekindling the Japanese economy, that would matter to those people. But if the premier fails to beef up the economy, people may regard the security legislation as a reason to drop support for Mr. Abe.”