During his spring visit to the United States, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stood in the well of the House of Representatives and promised: “I will pass national security legislation by the end of summer.”
He was referring to a new law and amendments to nearly a dozen other laws relating to the deployment of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). They would provide legislative mussel to the Abe cabinet’s decision one year ago to “reinterpret” the pacifistic constitution to permit collective defense.
At the time it seemed, especially to Washington which welcomed the return of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Abe back to power, that fulfilling this promise would present few difficulties. After all, the LDP and its Komeito coalition partner hold commanding majorities in both houses of parliament.
Washington was so sure of Abe’s legislative clout that it agreed to publish new joint guidelines for joint US-Japan cooperation in defense matters even before parliament voted on the amendments that are needed to implement the agreement.
Now there are signs that parliamentary approval of the measures this summer isn’t going to be a cake walk. Public opinion polls show growing numbers of Japanese opposing the new security laws, while the cabinet’s approval ratings, now about 40 percent, are beginning to fall.
In one sign that the government is getting worried, the prime minister extended the current session of the Diet, which was due to adjourn this month for the summer holidays, until the end of September. It is the longest extension since the end of World War II.
The tide began to turn in early May when three constitutional scholars testified before a parliamentary committee that the proposed laws were unconstitutional. Opposition took on added force as one of the three had been appointed by the government. The media played up their views.
Then the government was embarrassed when some of the younger members held a “study session” in which they debated ways to punish the press over their editorials and coverage of the security bills and other defense-related measures. One of those asked to speak was novelist Naoki Hyakuta, an extreme reactionary who said some of the unfriendly newspapers in Okinawa “must be destroyed.”
Hayakuta is not a member of parliament but served on the governing board of NHK, Japan’s state broadcaster, as an Abe appointee. The prime minister, who did not attend the meeting was forced to formally apologize, “It was extremely inappropriate,” Abe said referring to the language used by those attending.
One more fumble like that could be fatal to the bills, said party secretary general Sadakazu Tanigake.