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On October 22 Japan will hold a snap election, over a year in advance of the regularly scheduled date, December 2018. This decision, made by current Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, has been met with mixed reactions at home and abroad. Abe’s potential motives are being debated, but several factors may play a role in his hasty decision: the increasing threat of a North Korean missile strike, a long-running goal to strengthen the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, and the rise of a potential political adversary, Koike Yuriko.
Here Comes Koike
To casual observers, current PM Abe Shinzo seems a benevolent figure. In February, he could be seen shaking hands and smiling with President-elect Trump. Two years ago, he dressed up in Super Mario Garb and appeared in Rio to represent Japan as host of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Despite these appearances, he is considered quite conservative and nationalistic in the Japanese political sphere.
Abe is the third longest reigning PM in Japan’s post-war history and leader of the Liberal Democrats, Japan’s largest political party. He is currently in his third term, and some feel that his power is waning. This observation was affirmed during Tokyo’s prefectural election in July, in which his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered historic losses at the hands of a brand-new party, Tomin First no Kai (Tokyo Citizens First Party), led by Tokyo governor Koike Yuriko.
Koike is the first female governor in Tokyo’s history, and she is not new to politics. In a country where many women still face what Koike refers to as the “iron plate” of gender-based barriers to job advancement, Ms. Koike is charting a new path and making waves in the process. She and Abe agree that reform for Japan’s Self-Defense Force is long overdue but she is critical of the current PM’s decision to call an early election.
Since her electoral upset in Tokyo, Koike has created a national political party, Kibou no To (Party of Hope), which will compete in the October election. Her supporters feel that now is her chance to challenge Abe for prime minister, but she has stated that she will not run for parliament. The outcome of the Tokyo prefectural election is commonly believed to be a predictor of how the parliamentary election will swing. If that holds true, it would not bode well for the LDP and could bring a potential shift in power to opposition parties, including Koike’s Party of Hope. At a time when Japan is deciding its stance in a potential crisis with North Korea, a paradigm shift only adds to the chaos.
Abe and North Korea
PM Abe’s approval rating has fluctuated in the wake of the two North Korean tests that sent ballistic missiles flying over Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido on August 29 and September 15. His strong rhetoric against the missile tests helped him regain some ground after his party’s huge electoral defeat over the summer. Nevertheless, Abe is now facing new criticism that he is using those gains to reaffirm his leadership in the October election. Some observers note that Abe has continually tried to maintain close ties with the U.S., and as someone who already has a rapport with President Trump, the current PM is more effective diplomatically than a newcomer to Japan-U.S. relations. If this snap election aids in rallying Japanese voters back to Abe and the LDP, Abe would have more support to push forward with his plan for reforming the Japanese constitution, specifically Article 9.
The Fate of the Self-Defense Forces
Interpretation of Article 9 has been a contentious political issue since it was created in 1947. This section of the constitution – written by U.S. officials after World War II – prohibits Japanese involvement in war and forbids the country from maintaining a standing military. The Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) were established in 1954, and their purpose is noted in the name: they are to be deployed only when the country has been attacked first. Both Abe’s and Koike’s parties prioritize altering Article 9 to allow the JSDF greater flexibility to exercise collective self-defense, including providing armaments to other nations or aiding allies under attack. This detail is crucial as statements exchanged by Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump intensify.
In the past, the JSDF have been dispatched to help with disaster relief around Japan. They are also allowed to participate in UN peacekeeping missions. But they have been criticized, even ridiculed, in the international community for their insistence on maintaining the image of a purely defensive force. This “toothless tiger” has limited authority to defend the island nation or its allies against attack, but is not prepared to engage offensively in case of serious global conflict. Conservative leaders like Abe and Koike believe this detail is grounds for alterations to the constitution.
The outcome of the October 22 election could mean many things. It could signal the beginning of the end of PM Abe Shinzo’s grasp on political power, and it could set the stage for Koike Yuriko to seek the premiership down the road. It could mean the beginning of a new chapter for the Japan Self-Defense Forces, and it could be a crucial turning point in the history of East Asian relations. In less than a week, we will see what the future holds.