Post-Election Changes Boost Push for a More Assertive Japan

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - One week after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi won a sweeping election victory, Japan appeared to be moving towards more robust foreign and security policies and away from its war-renouncing constitution.

Following its Sept. 11 election defeat, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) chose a new leader at the weekend, a young conservative whose views on the constitution and the role of Japanese forces abroad approach those of the prime minister.

Japan's post-World War II constitution restricts deployments of troops abroad, and also prohibits what is known officially as the Self-Defense Forces from providing support for the U.S. military in the event of attacks on American assets based in Japan.

Countries targeted by Imperial Japanese aggression before and during World War II are unhappy about Koizumi's shift away from official pacifism and towards a more assertive role in the region and beyond.

China in particular has reacted strongly, permitting angry anti-Japanese street protests this year and actively working to block Tokyo's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Japan's shift deepens its military alliance with the U.S., as seen in Tokyo's willingness to contribute non-combat troops to Iraq -- Japan's first military deployment since 1945 to a nation at war. In addition, Japan has taken an active role in the Proliferation Security Initiative and is cooperating with the U.S. in missile defense.

Although the recent election campaign was almost entirely focused on issues of economic reform -- specifically, privatization of the monolithic post office -- the DPJ's manifesto did take a critical stance on Japanese and U.S. foreign policies.

A DPJ government, the platform said, would "do away with the dependent relationship in which Japan ultimately has no alternative but to act in accordance with U.S. wishes, replacing it with a mature alliance based on independence and equality."

The opposition party's incoming leader, however, leans towards a more conservative stance, as seen in statements made shortly after he won Saturday's party leadership race, narrowly defeating a veteran liberal lawmaker.

Japan should have the right to support the U.S. if the U.S. was involved in an armed conflict in the region, Seiji Maehara said in a television interview.

The new DPJ leader also expressed support for revising the constitution to allow Japanese peacekeeping forces to use arms when deployed abroad. Because of the constitutional limitations, the 550 Japanese troops in southern Iraq are under the protection of colleagues from other coalition members, currently Australia.

Maehara, 43, is regarded an expert in foreign and security policies. His comments suggest that, on security and constitution revision issues, the opposition and Koizumi's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are likely to find common ground.

At the same time, however, Maehara will face an uphill battle against liberals and socialists in his party who want the constitution kept as is.

Even before Maehara won the leadership, the election result was shown to have delivered a House of Representatives strongly supportive of moves to amend the constitution.

A survey by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper last week found that 402 out of the 480 lawmakers in the new-look legislature - nearly 85 percent - back constitutional changes and only 36 oppose it. The remainder is undecided.

By comparison, a similar survey taken after a 1996 election found only 41 percent of lawmakers in favor, the paper said.

Amending the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both houses. Last week's election gives Koizumi's ruling coalition more than two-thirds in the House of Representatives, but its majority in the upper house - which was not up for election this time - is slimmer.

Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Edward Lincoln believes Japan still has a way to go in the debate over changing the constitution.

"Certainly the outcome of this election, with a resurgence of support for the LDP, moves the process in the direction of revising the constitution," he said last week.

"I think we're still looking at a five- to ten-year horizon for that issue. There's a lot of open debate that still needs to take place."

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met at the weekend with her Japanese counterpart, Nobutaka Machimura, who told her Tokyo was ready to extend an anti-terrorism naval support mission in the Indian Ocean beyond its Nov. 1 cutoff date.

The Kyodo news agency said the two discussed a range of foreign and security issues, including ongoing plans to realign U.S. military bases in Japan, the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and efforts to defuse a standoff over Iran's nuclear programs.

In an address to the U.N. General Assembly Saturday, Rice reiterated the Bush administration's support for Japan's attempt to win a permanent Security Council seat.

The U.S. and other nations earlier opposed a joint bid by Japan, Brazil, India and Germany to acquire seats on an expanded council - in Washington's case, because it argued that enlargement should be limited so as not to result in too unwieldy an body.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow