Following a tense standoff culminating in threats of “fire and fury” (made by US President Trump after the initial announcement of UN sanctions targeting the DPRK’s primary exports) and hitting the US territory of Guam with missiles, Japanese Prime Minister Abe and Trump agreed on August 15 to cooperate with China and Russia to prevent North Korea from launching ballistic missiles toward Guam. Despite this cooling off, Abe and his cabinet may perceive that Japan cannot solely rely on offensive shield of the US while the probability of miscalculation and diplomatic efforts to derail remain high due to the unpredictability of Trump’s public statements and alliance/trade policy sentiments and North Korea’s desire to remain a nuclear power. Abe, who has sought to forge a close working relationship with Trump, likely calculates he may have the opportunity to capitalize on his efforts to revise Japan’s constitution by 2020, thus enshrining the Self Defense Forces (SDF) while further discerning ways to interpret Article 9 of the constitution that forever renounces war in a time of evolving and fast paced security threats. However, despite the potential space to pursue these objectives, Abe faces several domestic hurdles, including voter sentiment, pacifist supporters, and polling numbers and popularity.

Since Japan’s constitution came into effect in 1947, there have been several events that have ignited discussion on multiple interpretations of how Japan could develop its defensive capabilities or define a right to self-defense and protection in the event of hostilities, and participate military in a variety of global campaigns. US pressure (though the US pushed the pacifist constitution) and changing global dynamics including the Korean War, the Cold War, the Gulf War, the 1998 Taepodong-1 medium-range ballistic missile test, 9/11 attacks and subsequent Middle East wars, and requests for participation in UN peacekeeping operations have spurred new legislation, interpretations, and mutual defense agreements. The key features of the constitution is Article 9 and lack of reference to the SDF, features that have been tested and interpreted as developments arise and Japan considers how to best defend itself. In establishing the SDF in 1954, the government stated that there are three requirements which must be met in order to use the self-defense right: there is a present and wrongful danger of invasion to Japan; no other appropriate measures exist to defend Japan; and the use of force to defend Japan is limited to the extent only minimally necessary. The SDF’s role has expanded—uncomfortably for some—through laws governing the SDF and war contingency. As it stands, the government can put the SDF standby if it determines a military attack is anticipated. The SDF is prohibited from attacking the aggressor until an armed attack has begun. In the case of a North Korean missile attack, when missiles are readied into position, the “attack” is defined as having begun, thereby allowing the SDF to “retaliate.”

Abe has made no secret of his desire to change the constitution, not just expand legislation, particularly with regards to the SDF and may have been handed his opportunity. Abe has consistently argued for a tougher line against North Korea and in May, months before the diplomatic melee began, Abe argued for adding a new clause to Article 9 specifying the existence of the SDF while upholding the article’s renunciation of war and ban on Japan maintaining the potential for war. Following the rhetorical bluster between the US and DPRK, recently appointed Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera suggested that the SDF could take part in a US-DPRK war if Pyongyang attacks Guam, assessing that an attack on the US military hub would weaken US power and endanger Japan’s existence. Therefore, Japan could exercise its right to collective self-defense, which enables the country to help the US militarily. “If the situation meets the three conditions to use force in exercising the right to collective self-defense, we will be able to do so,” Onodera said. Japan is already moving to strengthen its anti-missile defenses; the US and Japan are currently jointly developing “SM3 Block 2A” missiles that have longer flying distances and higher accuracy than the SM3 missiles.

Deploying long-range cruise missiles with the capability of hitting North Korea weapons would start a new chapter in Japan’s self-defense posture. Most Japanese appear happy with the US assuming offensive maneuvers, despite concerns about North Korea, and may raise concerns of further deployments of long-range missiles.  According to public opinion polls conducted by all major Japanese newspapers, slightly more than half of the people surveyed favored amending their popular constitution to keep up with the changing world; however, the public did not necessarily favor the amendment of Article 9.  Prior to recent North Korean aggression, most significantly following the 1998 Taepodong-1 tests, there was growing clarity among the Japanese that threats in the region require a rethink of the constitution, and that its current form may inhibit Japan from effectively dealing with its security challenges. Almost all that were surveyed liked utilizing the SDF and US-Japan security agreements to protect the country. While the public remains split on the idea of constitutional revision, what is clear is that it does not support change that would result in troops on the ground, anti-terrorist operations abroad or the participation of military operations outside Japan’s interests.

Though there is concern with Japan’s security and general support for the SDF and alliance, overall (and similar to Seoul), North Korea’s belligerency fails to crack the top concerns of most citizens, especially the citizens who are to vote. Japan’s voter turnout is quite low and as many colleagues and friends have pointed out, the broader population is disengaged and unmotivated to vote. Abe must proceed cautiously if he aims to amend the constitution by 2020; he will have to expend a lot of political capital that he may not have. Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) approval ratings have declined in the past months (though are not at the single digits most prime ministers, including Abe, experienced from 2006-2014), mostly thanks to a host of scandals and perceived party arrogance, but also, according to Japan military watchers, because voters view efforts to amend the constitution and strengthen the SDF as overreaching and his overall North Korean policy a failure. According to security expert Dr. Satoru Nagao, he notes that public survey show that Abe’s North Korea policy is quite unpopular with the public because they believe he has been unable to halt North Korea’s nuclear program and missile tests; each missile test is yet another reminder of he perceived faulty policy. In early August, Abe reshuffled his cabinet in an attempt to stem bleeding poll numbers but is keeping an eye on an LDP’s leadership contest next year. Former foreign minister Fumio Kishida may tap pacifist voter sentiment and caution on military reform, noting in a recent television interview, “In terms of our philosophies as politicians, to put it simply, Abe is a conservative. One might even call him a hawk. I’m a liberal, a dove.”

At a memorial service marking the end of World War II, Shinzo Abe on August 15 pledged to never take his nation to war again, vowing, “We shall never repeat the horrors of war.” On the same day, he fully backed Trump’s efforts to stop North Korea from attacking Guam. Japan’s prime minister must deftly maneuver regional dynamics, alliance-based protocol, and most importantly, his and the LDP’s standing with the Japanese public. Though Abe won’t be able to change Article 9’s language, he likely will have the opportunity—and definitely the will—to expand interpretations of the article and the role of the SDF, a likelihood that only increases if his poll numbers once ahead increase and he has more political capital to spend.

About the author

ERIN MURPHY is the Founder and Principal of Inle Advisory Group, a Myanmar and emerging market-centric business advisory firm. She is also a 2017-2018 Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi International Affairs Japan fellow.