Japan will wake up Monday morning with almost the exact same government, but a radically changed national mindset as the country further embraces a form of nationalism not seen there in over 70 years.
Despite his unpopularity, Shinzo Abe, the hawkish prime minister, strolled to victory on Sunday in the snap election he called in late September. Abe's victory will increase his two-thirds governing "super majority," having capitalized on mounting concerns in the country, chiefly over North Korea’s provocative missile tests and U.S. President Donald Trump’s ability to contain the rogue regime's nuclear program – coupled with his “America first” agenda, which has repeatedly singled out Tokyo, insisting that it pay more for its own defense.
The campaign focused almost entirely on defense, stability and Article 9 of Japan’s post-World War II constitution, which bans the country from using force to settle international disputes and which Abe has long vowed to amend.
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Argument over Article 9, a pacifist provision enacted in the aftermath of World War II, has raged in Japan ever since. But the new level of threat posed by North Korea and concerns about Trump rallied voters around Abe and his conservative Liberal Democratic Party, despite Abe's lack popularity.
Only on Thursday a poll published in the daily paper Asahi gave Abe, whom many Japanese seem to feel is an arrogant elitist, an approval rating of just 38 percent. Now he will remain premier until 2021, barring another snap election, of course.
The anti-terror bill
The outcome of the election also effectively rubber-stamps the controversial anti-terror bill that Abe’s government rammed through the National Diet in June, bypassing the upper house of the parliament. Now the bill's opposition has very little hope of repealing it.
Abe positioned the anti-terror law as a critical overhaul of counter-terrorism policy ahead of the summer Olympic games Tokyo is to host in 2020. The law criminalizes hundreds of actions, such as plotting and conspiracy - but critics fret that erodes civil liberties and may be used to gag journalists and crush grassroots political movements.
International observers were quick to condemn the law. The Japanese government had used the “psychology of fear” to push through “defective legislation,” claimed Joseph Cannataci, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to privacy, after the bill passed in June.
During his presidential campaign, throughout 2016, Trump repeatedly criticized Japan for not pulling its own weight on defense. In August, while campaigning in Des Moines, Iowa, he said, “You know we have a treaty with Japan where if Japan is attacked, we have to use the full force and might of the United States. If we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to do anything. They can sit home and watch Sony television, OK?”
NATO as well as countries such as Egypt and South Korea that rely on American defense or the U.S. nuclear umbrella were unsettled by Trump’s repeated attacks on their defense spending and the perceived isolationist tendencies outlined in his “America first” policy.
Even before entering the political arena, Trump had been a critic of Japan. During the 1980s and '90s, as Japanese businesses bought up assets in the U.S., Japan was a regular target of the right and critics of globalization. Trump even went so far as to take out a full-page ad in the New York Times in 1987 to criticize Japan for “taking advantage of the U.S.,” a fact Japan's ruling class in Japan is well aware of.
Abe sees two main crises in Japan today: the North Korea threat and the aging population. The Japanese people for their part are concerned about economic stagnation and fears of demographic decline.
His answer to these concerns has been to a hawkish foreign policy, “Abenomics” (aggressive stimulus and monetary easing) while courting the international community and restoring local pride through hosting the Olympics (in 2020) and other international events. For all Abe’s unpopularity, the upshot is that now the Japanese are turning outward for the first time in over 70 years.
Thanks to the growing threat from North Korea and Trump’s isolationism, which helped bolster his governing coalition, Abe can finally fulfill his long-term dream of amending Article 9 and legitimizing the military. With Japan joining the tide of nationalism rising around the globe, from Catalonia to the rise Germany’s far-right to the Kurds and Brexit, the post-World War II era based on U.S. leadership and global order has never seemed so threatened.