Under Kishida, Japan’s security reforms gather speed

The moderate, dovish background of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio is helping to reassure Japanese voters as he pushes forward with the biggest security reforms in decades.

Many in the Liberal Democratic Party have long disliked the postwar settlement that restricted Japan’s military and made it beholden to the United States for its security – indeed, pushing against that status quo is the founding political identity of one of the party’s two major ideological groups, the “conservative anti-mainstream” (hoshu bōryū), whose leaders have largely dominated the party in this century. The key stumbling block was always public opinion; even when the Japanese public has been uneasy about security issues, be they Chinese incursions around the contested Senkaku Islands or North Korean missile tests over Hokkaido, that unease has been matched with deep misgivings about any attempt to revise or reinterpret the nation’s pacifist constitution, or to otherwise make major changes to the country’s post-war security arrangements. That may be changing. From joining in sanctions against Russia, to inching towards firmer commitments to defending Taiwan, to cementing a plan to raise defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, the Japanese government under Prime Minister Kishida Fumio is crossing quite a few lines that his predecessors had rarely dared to challenge – and he may yet succeed where his hawkish predecessors have failed.

In the past two decades Japan has had two unusually powerful prime ministers from the conservative anti-mainstream tradition, both of whom pushed against the status quo in their own way, but each of whom was ultimately restricted to making only incremental changes. Koizumi Junichiro dispatched Self-Defense Forces troops to Iraq and signaled his disregard for the postwar status quo by igniting tensions with Japan’s neighbors with official visits to Yasukuni Shrine, but ultimately chose to focus his political capital on a battle with LDP rivals over postal reform rather than security policy. Abe Shinzo, whose eight largely unchallenged years in office gave him the strongest mandate and political position of any postwar prime minister, managed to pass a bill reinterpreting the constitution to permit Japanese forces to come to the defense of allied units under attack in some circumstances – but despite often having the parliamentary super-majority required to initiate a referendum, he never even came close to attempting his long-desired reform of the constitution’s pacifist Article 9. Throughout both leaders’ tenures, Japan’s defense budget continued to bump along below 1 percent of GDP, and changes to the nation’s defense posture were patchy at best – the country launched the SDF’s first aircraft carriers (by retrofitting Izumo-class helicopter carriers to adapt them for certain fixed-wing aircraft), but plans for the Aegis Ashore missile defense shield withered on the vine, not least due to local opposition from almost every proposed site for the batteries.

Kishida, however, is distinctly not from the conservative anti-mainstream tendency; he leads a faction of the LDP that sits firmly within the “conservative mainstream” (hoshu honryu) tradition, which was originally made up of followers of Liberal Party leader Yoshida Shigeru and thus embraced what came to be known as the “Yoshida Doctrine” – a plan for postwar Japan that relied heavily on the alliance with the United States for security, allowing the country to focus on its domestic economic growth and to use economic diplomacy as its main instrument in foreign relations. Nonetheless, Kishida seems poised to oversee some of the most significant steps in decades towards the normalization of Japan as a military power with a (somewhat) independent security policy – and thus far, at least, he seems to be doing so with the approval of the public, a crucial factor that proved elusive for both Koizumi and Abe’s flirtations with security reform.

Kishida is poised to oversee the biggest changes in decades to Japan’s security policy – and thus far, public opinion is firmly on his side

In part, this is due to circumstance – global events in recent years have focused public attention in Japan on security issues and have led moderates both in the LDP and center-left opposition camps to reconsider some of their positions. The invasion of Ukraine has filled Japanese news reports with brutal imagery that has unsettled citizens who believed that such wars were a thing of the past, at least in developed nations; the parallels between Russia / Ukraine and China / Taiwan, however imperfect they may be, raise the prospect of a similar catastrophe on Japan’s doorstep. China’s crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong also looms large in the Japanese public imagination, and further fuels fears about China’s ambitions and the status of Taiwan. Such concerns over China seem to resonate more deeply with Japanese citizens than the fears about North Korea’s missile programs which the LDP has previously attempted to leverage to build support for security reforms, perhaps because the impact of the latter is both blunted by its long-standing nature, and complicated by Japan’s tumultuous relationship with South Korea.

Looming in the background of these considerations is the unease many moderates felt about the tenure of U.S. President Donald Trump and his continuing influence on American domestic politics. Trump was generally very popular with Japanese conservatives simply for his willingness to pick fights with China; for more moderate politicians and voters, however, Trump’s erratic behavior and his transactional, unreliable approach to relationships with U.S. allies raised the unwelcome possibility of a United States unwilling to fulfill its treaty obligations. Even if the U.S. ultimately does step up in defense of treaty allies, any uncertainty over that outcome massively raises the risks of strategic miscalculations. In this respect, the greatest favor Trump did for Japan’s conservatives was not poking China in the eye – it was poking holes in the U.S.’ security guarantees, driving many moderates towards the conclusion that Japan indeed needs a more robust military and a more independent security policy.

These external factors explain why Kishida has room to maneuver over security policy – and perhaps how he came to see such changes as necessary despite his own ideological background – but there are also aspects of Kishida’s own personality and approach which help to explain why he commands public support (or at least tolerance) for security reform when both Abe and Koizumi met such strong resistance. Kishida’s ability to move towards increased military spending and a more robust security policy may actually be because of, rather than in spite of, his background in the LDP’s moderate wing; more bluntly, it helps a lot that Kishida simply isn’t Abe. For all his electoral victories and his historically long tenure in office, Abe was a divisive prime minister – one who mellowed significantly while in office (especially after his disastrous first term in 2006-2007) but whose nationalist views and desire to overturn the post-war order in Japan were no secret. During his time as prime minister, Abe often enjoyed high public support in opinion polls, but curiously, his policies were almost universally unpopular – even in the same opinion polls – and “because there is no other choice” was consistently the most-chosen answer in polls which asked why respondents supported him and his cabinet. Abe’s frustration at his inability to achieve his goals in office is likely a consequence of this public ambivalence; voters liked the political stability his tenure brought (mostly due to the iron grip he maintained over the often-fractious LDP) and didn’t trust the opposition to govern, but also didn’t especially want Abe to make any of the far-reaching reforms he wished for – especially to the nation’s constitution.

The public liked the political stability Abe’s tenure afforded – but they were less keen on the far-reaching reforms he wished for

In terms of security and constitutional reforms, Abe’s nationalism was both his core motivation and his Achilles’ heel. From senior politicians to Sankei Shimbun columnists to Twitter trolls, Japan’s nationalists suffer from a chronic inability to separate perfectly sane arguments for a more robust security posture from their own personal obsessions with “culture war” issues – the notion that Japan’s society and people have gone soft, that the education system fails to instill national pride, that the common understanding of wartime history is “masochistic”, and so on. It often feels like nationalists see security reforms as a stepping-stone to broader sociocultural reforms rather than as a rational response to Japan’s security environment. They even view provoking and upsetting neighbors like China and South Korea as inherently preferable to diplomatic engagement with them, despite the potential consequences for Japan’s actual security, making their motives seem untrustworthy to most everyone outside their base.

Here, Kishida has a major advantage; his arguments for security reform are grounded in geopolitical realities, and his ideological background as a defender of the postwar order, particularly regarding nuclear weapons, means voters don’t worry that his reforms are a thinly veneered attempt to pursue an unpopular culture war agenda that threatens Japan’s peaceful, non-militaristic postwar society. It’s notable that he is sticking rigidly to pursuing concrete goals – like a new target for military spending – rather than winning symbolic battles, especially given how much hot air the LDP has vented in recent years over a possible change to the constitution to enshrine the role of the SDF, a de facto reality which would not be changed in any meaningful way by recognition in the text of Article 9 (not least since existing legal interpretations hold that Article 9 already allows for the existence of self-defense forces).

Perhaps the biggest risk to Kishida’s security agenda, in fact, is Abe himself – who remains by far the most influential figure in the right-wing of the LDP, to the extent that some commentators have mused over the possibility that he could attempt to run for the leadership again in future. Kishida, for all that he enjoys solid public support, owes his leadership to a rather uneasy alliance between his own moderate supporters and Abe’s “conservative anti-mainstream” supporters, who backed Kishida thanks to a pact with Abe’s preferred candidate in last year’s LDP leadership election, the hawkish and socially conservative Takaichi Sanae. A weaker than expected result in this summer’s House of Councillors election, or too much departure from their preferred policy agendas, could see agitation from that group to replace Kishida with one of their own. On the other hand, a perception that Kishida is too close to Abe, or even being controlled by him, could see him hemorrhage both public support for his security reforms and moderate support within the party.

Kishida’s background as a defender of the postwar order reassures voters that his security reforms do not mask a culture war agenda

Thus far, Kishida has walked this tightrope expertly – notably using Japan’s response to the crisis in Ukraine to distance his foreign policy approach from Abe’s, in particular Abe’s relentless and ultimately fruitless attempts to build personal ties with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in the hopes that a resolution to Japan’s dispute over the Northern Territories (islands north of Hokkaido which were seized by the Soviet Union in the closing days of World War 2) would be part of his legacy as prime minister. In the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, a continuation of Abe’s approach would be unthinkable, but a careful neutrality that paid lip service to condemning the invasion while attempting to maintain Russian ties was likely; by instead joining with allies and taking a hard line on sanctions, Kishida is signaling both to the Japanese public and to the international community that he’s a markedly different leader, putting clear water between himself and the former prime minister.

Continuing to walk that tightrope – stressing both the rational arguments for Japan to change its approach to security and his own credentials as a diplomat and supporter of the post-war order, while keeping the culture war instincts of the party’s powerful right-wing groups to whom he owes his premiership at arm’s length from the discussion – will be essential to Kishida retaining the support of the Japanese public as he moves carefully towards some of the most significant post-war changes to the country’s military and security policies. This will not be a short process, and political instability would likely hit the reset button on many key aspects; if Japan’s right-wing conservatives are truly serious about their desire for security reform, independent of their desire for social, cultural, educational and constitutional reform to upend Japan’s post-war status quo, then arguably their best strategy for the coming years will be to cool their jets and let their moderate prime minister do the work of convincing the people of the need for change.

Assistant Professor at Waseda University | Website | + posts

Rob Fahey is an Assistant Professor at the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study (WIAS) in Tokyo, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Milan's School of Social and Political Sciences. He was formerly a Research Associate at the Waseda Institute for Political Economy (WINPEC). His research focuses on populism and polarisation, the impact of conspiracy theory beliefs on political behaviour,  domestic Japanese politics, and the use of text mining and network analysis techniques for political and social analysis. He received his Masters and Ph.D from Waseda University, and his undergraduate degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

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