On Monday 25 September, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo announced his government’s intention to stage a general election. The election, scheduled for October 22, is the fourth such vote to be held in Japan over the past eight years. In calling the election Abe cited a need to force a “breakthrough amid a national crisis.”

A series of scandals in early 2017 saw Abe’s approval rating sink below 30%, yet the prime minister’s handling of the ongoing North Korea crisis has won him increased popular support. This has led to a 20% spike according to some recent polls. Aside from the scandals, Abe has also faced challenges from within his own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In particular the rising profile of Ishiba Shigeru has led some analysts to suspect the powerful Party Secretary-General may be mounting a bid for the leadership.

Furthermore, following the party’s dismal showing in July’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, the LDP has a further rival to contend with in the form of the Party of Hope. Led by hugely popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, the Party of Hope won the Tokyo elections convincingly on an ideological platform largely synonymous with that of the LDP. The newly-nationalised party is also expected to steal a number of seats from its more established rival. However, this particular election will have arrived too soon for it to make up any real ground on the hitherto unassailable behemoth of the LDP.

Why now?

The decision to dissolve the lower house early is far from unprecedented. Of all the Japanese elections held in the post-war era, only the 1976 iteration went ahead as scheduled at the end of a four-year term. Nonetheless, the perception exists that the move is nothing more than Abe’s cynical attempt to deflect criticism arising from the aforementioned series of scandals. Accordingly, the decision has drawn the ire of both commentators and opposition parties alike.

Members of the main opposition group, the Democratic party, will protest the move by sitting out the September 28 extraordinary Diet session in which the lower house is formally dissolved. Meanwhile, an editorial in the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun daily newspaper claims that the decision amounts to an act of “contempt for the Diet”. Yet, despite this criticism, the lack of credible alternatives points to another landslide victory for the LDP.

Shinzo Abe sits in front of Japan flag
Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo will begin his campaign ahead of the snap election. Photo credit: Kremlin.ru.

What to expect on the Abe campaign trail

Abe will use the campaign to target Japan’s disaffected and hitherto apathetic young vote. He has proposed a 2% consumption tax hike, the gains from which – he claims – will be used to fund free education and childcare projects. Aware that the high cost of child-rearing is often cited by the nation’s young as a reason for choosing not to raise children, these projects, Abe suggests, will serve to tackle Japan’s ongoing ageing population crisis.

The campaign will also appeal to the party’s traditional conservative vote. It is a long-held aim of the LDP to remove – or at least amend – Article 9 of the nation’s US-authored pacifistic constitution. Article 9 prohibits Japan using force as a means of solving international disputes, and denies it the right to maintain any form of armed forces.

That said, the clause is consistently open to debate. In the seventy years since the post-war ratification of the clause, the LDP – in power for all but 12 of those years – has repeatedly reinterpreted its meaning to allow room for the development of the Japanese Special Defence Forces (JSDF).

Now one of the best-trained and funded fighting forces in the world, the very existence of the JSDF is considered by many within Japan to be unconstitutional. Yet it also enjoys great support amongst the public as a defensive measure, particular at times of heightened security issues.

This support prompted Abe to announce in May his determination to push through a referendum on constitutional reform by 2020. Reform itself will take the shape of a paragraph added to Article 9 that specifically mentions the JSDF, describing its role in safeguarding the interests and safety of the Japanese people.

North Korea and Japan’s dependence on the US for defence

US president Donald Trump has long derided the uneven nature of the relationship between the US and Japan. On his campaign trail, he frequently referenced the need to address the trade imbalance between the two nations. While Abe’s charm offensive seems to have softened Trump’s stance on the issue, analysts believe there is still a high chance Trump may make good on his earlier pronouncements.

Temple University’s Professor of History, Jeff Kingston, writes that investments made by the Japanese government in US interests are designed to appease the Trump administration, prolonging adherence to the terms of the current defence agreement. He even suggests that the recent purchase of US Infrastructure Bonds by the Government Pension Investment Fund could see Japanese tax-payer money inadvertently funding the construction of Trump’s proposed US-Mexico border wall.

And yet, while Abe publicly seeks to appease US interests, there is a desire within the LDP – and the hawkish Prime Minister’s inner circle in particular – to regain a measure of independence in terms of national security; and hence the desire to conclusively confirm the constitutionality of the JSDF.

With the threat posed by North Korea now a fact of life in Japan, earlier calls for a tougher stance on North Korea have cast Abe in the strongman role. Should his decision to call an election prove successful, he will be in the perfect position to push ahead with constitutional reform.

Japanese prime minister shizo abe meets us president Donald Trump
The US-Japan axis has assumed added importance in the wake of North Korean provocation. Photo Credit: The White House.

But could it all go wrong?

As British Prime Minister Theresa May’s performance in this year’s general election has demonstrated, manipulating circumstance and preying on the perceived weakness of the opposition can potentially backfire. A recent Kyodo survey showed that around two-thirds of Japanese voters are opposed to Abe’s decision to call the election early. Those interviewed professed distaste with what they perceive to be an act of bald political manoeuvring during a particularly sensitive period.

Abe has stated that he will resign if he loses his majority in the lower house. And while an upset is unlikely, an unfavourable outcome could see him replaced by a figure such as Ishiba Shigeru. Ishiba, by no means a dove himself, has in the past criticised Abe’s focus on amending Article 9. Therefore, what started as a seemingly low-risk gamble could prove disastrous for Abe’s ultimate aim of constitutional reform.

Abe himself has stated that he called the election in order to test the “public mandate on actions against North Korea”. Assuming, therefore, that he retains his majority in both the lower and upper houses, he will interpret this mandate as licence to lift restrictions on the capabilities of the JSDF.

Thus capable, theoretically, of defending itself in the face of provocation from North Korea, Japan could find that Abe has bitten off far more than it can chew. It is well within the realms of possibility that the irascible and inward-looking Trump administration could respond to constitutional change in Japan by withdrawing its military support for the nation. This would leave the country marginalised and exposed at a time of great regional instability.

An existential threat to the Asia-Pacific region

After a summer of missile and nuclear bomb tests, the North Korean regime last week threatened to “sink Japan” and reduce the US to “ashes and darkness”. A resounding Abe victory in the up-coming Japanese election will see the Prime Minister seek to respond to such threats with the increased militarisation of the supposedly pacifistic country. It can only be hoped that Abe’s act of political manoeuvring does not destabilise further the peace of a region already balanced on a knife’s edge.

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