Japan's lower house on July 16 approved legislation that would allow an expanded role for the nation's Self-Defense Forces in a vote boycotted by the opposition. The vote came one day after Prime Minster Shinzo Abe's ruling LDP-led bloc forced the bills through a committee despite intensifying protests. Opposition lawmakers walked out after their party leaders made final speeches against the bills. Abe cited China's growing military presence in the region in support of the legislation. The bills were drafted after his Cabinet last year adopted a new interpretation of Japan's pacifist constitution. Opponents counter that the new interpretation is unconstitutional. A criticism of the reform is that it is unclear what the new legislation actually does, but it is clearly intended to permit Japanese troops to be deployed on combat missions for the first time since the end of World War II. The package will now be passed on to the upper house of the Diet, and could be approved as early as next week.
Nationwide protests were held July 15, including a 25,000-strong rally outside the Diet building in Tokyo, to oppose the legislation being pushed through a Lower House special committee. The crowd included company employees on their way home as well as parents with their children. Slogans included "Protect Article 9" and "Stop the reckless drive of the Abe administration."
Chinese defense chief Chang Wanquan told veteran diplomat Shotaro Yachi, who is a close ally of Abe, that passage of the package was an "unprecedented move" that "will have a complicated influence on regional security and strategic stability," according to a Xinhua paraphrase. He "urged the Japanese to learn from history, respect major security concerns of its neighbors and not to do harm to regional peace and stability," Xinhua said.
Ominously, just as the package was passed, Japan's top military commander, Adm. Katsutoshi Kawano, raised the possibility that Japan could begin patrols in the South China Sea—the scene of several escalating maritime border disputes involving China.
Abe is set to face a number of difficult political moments this summer, each likely to further erode his already declining popularity among voters. These include the planned reactivation of the Sendai nuclear reactor in Kagoshima prefecture, commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and the possible conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks.
President Barack Obama signaled his support for the military reform legislation when he met with Abe in April. (Japan Today, July 18; The Guardian, July 17; Japan Times, Asahi Shimbun, AP, NBC, July 16; Japan Subculture Research Center, July 14)