New York Times
POSTED: 8:25 p.m. HST, Jul 9, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 8:26 p.m. HST, Jul 9, 2014
TOKYO » Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, appears to have slowed efforts to expand the role of the military just days after announcing a reinterpretation of the country's pacifist constitution, a historic and controversial change.
The move against the changes comes as rare street protests in Tokyo and elsewhere have continued and after the release of a major opinion poll that showed a significant drop in his administration's approval ratings since his decision.
The reinterpretation announced July 1 would free up Japan's armed forces for the first time in six decades to take a more assertive role in the increasingly tense region. It would allow them to come to the aid of friendly countries under attack, for instance by shooting down a missile headed toward them.
Parliament must still clear legal barriers to the constitutional reinterpretation by revising a number of laws, and local media had quoted unnamed members of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party recently saying they had hoped the legislation could be passed as early as this fall. (Abe's governing coalition enjoys a comfortable majority in both houses of parliament, or the Diet.)
But this week, a top adviser to Abe, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, suggested that the administration would move more slowly, taking about a year.
Although he did not indicate if this was a change from an earlier timetable, he said "we would like to work on it in a deliberate and careful manner."
He also suggested the poll numbers — which have been widely repeated in the media here — did not sway the government.
Still, Abe acknowledged in an interview with the country's largest financial daily this week that the poll indicated a lackluster support for the plan and said he expected a long debate period to help build public acceptance.
"Unfortunately, we cannot say that public is fully supportive," he said in the interview with Nihon Keizai Shimbun. "Lawmakers will discuss the bills without haste in the Diet, then the public's understanding will deepen."
A poll conducted by the Yomiuri newspaper in the days after Abe's plan was announced showed support for his administration fell to 48 percent, down 9 percentage points from a similar survey last month.
The survey results underline the challenges the hawkish Abe faces as he seeks to win over a wary Japanese public, many of whom support the constitution's restrictions on the military as a way of keeping Japan from again straying toward conflict after its devastating defeat in World War II. Abe has already had to scale back his plans because of pushback from some within his own party and a small Buddhist party that is a coalition partner.
"We've seen pretty consistently that the majority of the public doesn't support what the prime minister is trying to do in the realm of this significant and historic change in policy," said Daniel Sneider, the associate director for research at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
"It's a dangerous game he's playing, but he's determined to do this," Sneider added.
Japan's postwar Constitution confines the role of its military to self-defense purposes, but Japanese politicians have for years sought to expand its scope. That has included deploying the large and technologically advanced military to assist Western efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, where Japan helped transport cargo and refueled ships of foreign navies.
When Abe tried to make more wholesale changes to the constitution during his last term in office, public disapproval helped cost him his job in '07.
Since then, however, Japanese people have become rattled by China's rise and its increasingly assertive maritime territorial claims in two strategic seas, including over islands long administered by Japan.