Written by Corey Wallace.

The July 1 cabinet declaration was a critical symbolic change in how the Japanese government conceptualises the spheres of action the Self-Defense Force can (and should) operate in to uphold the security of Japan. Previously the SDF was required to wait until a direct attack on Japan started to take place before it could use military power and force to repel it. The new interpretation of Article 9, however, essentially allows the SDF to cooperate with other nations’ militaries to repel an attack on another nation that would have serious implications for Japan’s own security. While this security concept had arguably been quietly embedded in the SDF’s operating orientation since the first US-Japan Defense Guidelines in 1978, and particularly from the 1997 Revised US-Japan Defense Guidelines, the cabinet declaration has made Japan’s commitment to upholding regional security through the “use” of the SDF, if necessary, much more explicit.

The cabinet declaration was only the first step in the process of expanding the range of actions that the SDF can engage in based upon this new understanding. Unsurprisingly to many, implementing this “new” view of security cooperation has not proceeded smoothly. Opinion polls released in the month subsequent to the declaration revealed not only continued Japanese public opposition to the exercise of the right to collective self-defense (CSD), but also showed that the Abe administration’s popularity was suffering from it. This appears to have resulted in Abe taking a much more cautious approach and the most difficult legislation was delayed until 2015 after the second revision of the US-Japan Defense Guidelines was completed.

Another critical development since the July 1st declaration, in terms of the practical politics of changing Japan’s security orientation, took place on September 3 with the first reshuffle of the 2nd Abe Cabinet. This cabinet, uncharacteristically for Japanese politics, did not have a single change since it was inaugurated in December 2012. It set a record as Japan’s longest serving cabinet in the post-war period by remaining intact for more than 600 days.

Due to various internal governing party tensions and pressures, Abe decided that a reshuffle was in order, however, essentially to keep a modicum of peace within the LDP while balancing the need for stability. The cabinet reshuffle was less about about policy than about keeping party unity intact and morale up by rewarding senior MPs with cabinet or higher level party posts. The cabinet was also generally well balanced in terms of factional spread.

This reshuffle also resulted in a new cabinet position being created. A state minister responsible for security legislation (anzen hoshō hōsei tantō shō 安全保障法制担当相) will be added to facilitate the changes that were identified as necessary in the July 1 cabinet declaration, particularly those relating to CSD, increased support for international and UN operations, and reacting to grey zone contingencies.

The primary responsibility of this security legislation minister will be to shepherd through the Japanese Diet in the 2015 regular session changes to ten or more security and defense-related laws, including changes to the SDF Law. They will be tasked with answering questions in parliament about the implications of the new laws, and will be the public face of Abe’s desired reconfiguration of the the legal basis for Japan’s security. To assist the new security legislation minister in preparing answers over what will be highly technical, and likely controversial issues, an additional vice-minister position will be created. This brings the number of defense vice-ministers to two, in line with foreign affairs and other important ministerial portfolios.

The person appointed to this position by Abe in the reshuffle is 58 year-old Eto Akinori, who has simultaneously been appointed to the role of Minister of Defense in the new cabinet. Due to LDP internal politicking and jockeying ahead of a potential September 2015 LDP leadership challenge, Ishiba Shigeru turned down the security legislation role in the new cabinet, instead taking on a post focused on regional revitalization. Eto is, like Ishiba, already very familiar with many people in Ministry of Defense, however. Eto has served in the role of defense vice-minister on three distinct occasions starting with the first Abe Cabinet, and immediately prior to his appointment he was serving as the chairman of the House of Representatives Security Affairs Committee.

Eto was not, however, directly involved in the discussions leading up to the July 1 cabinet declaration, and was not privy to the political intrigues that took place between the Komeito, the LDP, the Cabinet Legislative Bureau, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While there is some concern that this could lead to Eto stepping on some political stakeholder toes, which could complicate the passage of legislation next year, he will likely be supported by Kōmura Masahiko who was arguably the key go-between responsible for pushing the political negotiations around the July 1 cabinet declaration through and getting Komeito’s sign-off. Both are from the same LDP faction. Ultimately, in terms of bureaucratic experience, and familiarity with the major players on both sides of the Pacific ahead of the US-Japan Guidelines revision, Eto seems like a very apt choice.

The politics surrounding Eto and the chances of succeeding in the new role are more complex, however. Eto is quite hawkish in his security outlook, and also shares many of the same conservative ideological proclivities with Abe Shinzō. In this sense he is quite different from the previous Minister of Defense Onodera Itsunori, whose LDP origins derive from the broader Kōchikai LDP group. Kōchikai is a broad-based faction that has a reputation as less hawkish on China than other LDP groups and has produced well known prime ministers such as Ikeda Hayato and Miyazawa Kiichi. They are generally suspicious of the new breed of revisionist conservatives represented by Abe and his allies. While ostensibly still “conservative,” the Kōchikai’s general political orientation (jp) is that the current constitution is worthy of respect, it is important to hold a historical awareness that Japan’s decision to go to war was a mistake, that freedom of speech and expression should be paramount, and that the economy and citizen’s livelihood should be the key focus of politics and policy.

Abe appears to be giving Eto an opportunity to succeed and thus is attempting to position him and others of his ilk for bigger things in a post-Abe Japan. This in itself could make Eto’s job much harder. Eto will also have to handle issues surrounding the controversial construction of a replacement facility for the US Marines’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa. The question of whether Eto will visit the Yasukuni Shrine at some point is also one to keep in the back of the mind. Given the sensitivity both domestically and regionally surrounding the new legislation, then Eto would be well advised to forego such a visit and to be careful about making any “gaffes” that would strongly associate the revisions with a strong conservative ideological agenda. Kishida Fumio and Onodera, both respected Kōchikai members, were arguably successful in actively functioning as the moderate international face of Abe’s cabinet in the roles of Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense respectively. In fact, it was Abe’s own actions that ‘tainted’ his security agenda with revisionist, conservative ideological trappings. With Eto now taking on the dual defense and security legislation roles, the possibility of raising the sensitivities of the Japanese public and interested foreign stakeholders, including even the American government itself, are much higher. Given these ideological proclivities, there will be tensions and potentially a contradiction between Eto’s (and Abe’s) own personal views and Eto’s role in essentially being tasked with explaining to the public and the Japanese parliament how any legislative changes will not lead to a deviation from Japan’s defense orientated defense posture, and will not ultimately undermine Japan’s identity as a peace nation.

The broader success of the post-September 3 Abe Cabinet will also be critical to the passage of security legislation. Abe has a number of non-security related issues that could hurt his still solid political position in the latter part of 2014 heading into 2015. LDP unity during any dip in Abe support could well be the key to the passing of robust legislation. While legislation of some kind will almost certainly be passed, it is still an open question whether the outcome will meet all of the objectives that Abe has previously laid down.  If the Abe administration continues its gradual slide downwards in terms of public sentiment, if opinion worsens suddenly because the public turns against it due to gaffes or unpopular decisions, if the public becomes disenchanted with the general pace of reform, and/or if Japan’s economic performance does not recover in the second half of the year after the (somewhat expected) bad April to June quarter, then this will lead to a weakened administration. If weakened, this will provide incentives for Abe’s rivals and factional groups to play politics ahead of next years LDP election, which effectively doubles as the election of the prime minister, which could in turn further weaken the perception of Abe’s administrative competence.

Perhaps more critically, a weakened Abe not completely in control of his own party will embolden the LDP’s already sceptical coalition partner Komeito to assert themselves in the legislative process, especially as it already has an incentive to do so ahead of the April unified local elections next year. This could lead to a much less ambitious post-CSD defence reform than what was originally envisioned on July 1 (itself, much less ambitious than previously indicated).

A strengthened Komeito would likely balk at the SDF participating in minesweeping activities beyond East Asia in the absence of a formal cessation of conflict, would likely push the LDP, to handle grey zone contingencies through the enhancement of police enforcement powers, an old trick from the playbook used during the Koizumi years. The Komeito generally prefers using the JCG to deal with these issues, while Abe favours giving the Maritime Self-Defense Forces more scope to intervene in grey zone contingencies. In terms of greater and wider types of participation in United Nations missions, the Komeito is also cautious. It has been adamant already that it does not want the SDF using weapons to actively conduct rescue missions of other nations’ military personnel. It’s position has generally been that it will only accept the rescue of citizens and IGO members through the potential use of weapons within the context of a UNPKO. A further strengthened Komeito, with a point to prove to its Sōkagakkai mothership organisation, could easily impose even stricter regulations on such missions than originally envisioned by Abe’s security allies.

Corey Wallace is a Lecturer in the Political Studies Department at the University of Auckland. He teaches courses on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific region and his research specialization is Japan’s evolving security policy.