Conservative and right-wing forces aligned with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have won a crushing victory in snap parliamentary elections, raising the likelihood of a further militarization of East Asia in response to the ongoing crisis in the Korean Peninsula.
Abe's Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition has won a combined 312 seats, ensuring a two-thirds "super majority" in the 465-member lower house.
The win grants a commanding mandate to Abe and his right-wing bloc, ensuring a continuation of his “Abenomics” growth strategy centered on extremely loose monetary policies, his desire to increase Japan's reliance on nuclear energy, and his close ties to the United States. It also raises the likelihood that Abe, 63, will have a third three-year term as LDP leader next September and will go on to become Japan's longest-serving premier.
The win also paves the way for the prime minister to realize his long-term ambition of revising the postwar U.S.-drafted constitution, which renounced the use of war and threats of force as a tool for settling international disputes. It also outlawed the maintenance of the country's land, sea and air forces, placing restrictions on Abe's hard-line policy proposals for confronting North Korea alongside the U.S.
The U.S.-drafted Constitution's Article 9, if taken literally, bans the maintenance of armed forces. But Japanese governments have interpreted it to allow a military exclusively for self-defense. Japan's well-funded military currently retains over 227,000 personnel and enjoys an arsenal stocked with various high-tech weapons.
Backers of Abe's proposal to legalize the military's ambiguous status say it would codify a status quo which has contradicted the Constitution since the Japan Self-Defense Forces was founded in 1954. Pro-constitutional reform figures also cite alleged threats from North Korea and China to justify the need to alter the Constitution.
Critics fear that an emboldened Japan could become tangled in overseas conflicts as ruling elites move to secure their interests abroad and potentially face off with a rising China.
Abe, along with a large portion of lawmakers from the ruling coalition, adheres to the ideology of Nippon Kaigi, or Japan Conference, a group that openly extols the bloody policies of the Empire of Japan. The group counts in its ranks prominent businessmen, bureaucrats, academics and politicians.
For Nippon Kaigi, the “occupiers' Constitution” keeps Japan's “legs and hands bound” and restricts the country's international role to what it calls “humiliating apology diplomacy,” enshrining the disastrous humiliation of abject defeat that Imperial Japanese policies culminated in.
According to a 2014 report by the U.S. Congress, Nippon Kaigi believes “Japan should be applauded for liberating much of East Asia from Western colonial powers, that the 1946-1948 Tokyo War Crimes tribunals were illegitimate, and that the killings by Imperial Japanese troops during the 1937 ‘Nanjing massacre’ were exaggerated or fabricated.”
In April, Japan's education ministry approved the inclusion of jukendo, or “way of the bayonet” training, in its middle school physical education curriculum. The move drew criticism from Japanese citizens as well as Chinese and Korean press outlets as evocative of the indoctrination techniques of the country's imperial era. The so-called “traditional sport” was a training item for the Imperial Japanese Army prior to the country's WWII defeat and involves thrusting blunted wooden bayonets toward opponents' vital organs, chest and throat.
Abe called the poll in late September, saying he needed a new mandate to tackle a "national crisis" from North Korea's missile and nuclear program and a fast-aging population and to approve his idea of diverting revenue from a planned sales tax hike to education and child care from public debt repayment.
The snap poll was announced amid confusion in the opposition camp and an uptick in Abe's ratings, dented earlier in the year by scandals over cronyism and the perception that he had grown arrogant after nearly five years in office.
Abe has also been under fire for his connection with right-wing private school operator Moritomo Gakuen, which purchased a piece of state-owned land in Osaka for only a fraction of the market price. Young children, aged 3 to 5, were given an aggressive nationalist curriculum and were taught to memorize pre-war Imperial Japanese oaths of allegiance, bow before imperial portraits, and take field trips to military bases.
Abe has also been accused of using his influence to make the government choose Kake Educational Institution, run by a close friend of Abe's, to open a new department in a government-designated special economic zone.
Abe's snap poll gamble had seemed risky - some early forecasts saw the LDP losing a significant chunk of seats - after Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, often floated as a possible first Japanese female premier intent on shaking up Japan's patriarchy, launched her conservative Party of Hope.
Media outlets often sought to depict Koike as the “Hillary Clinton” to Abe's “Donald Trump.” However, the Tokyo governor – a senior member of the Nippon Kaigi, which opposes gender equality – enjoys close ties to the anti-immigrant Zaitokukai group. The hard-right extremist group has held anti-Korean, xenophobic marches advocating violent attacks on and killings of Tokyo's Korean community.
Koike's Party of Hope absorbed a big chunk of the failed main opposition Democratic Party, which abruptly decided to run no candidates of its own. But voter enthusiasm soon waned after Koike demanded absolute loyalty to the party line from DP defectors.
Koike did not run for a lower house seat herself - she was in Paris for a climate change event on Sunday - and failed to say whom her party would back for prime minister. Observers expect that Party of Hope, whose major policy proposals were essentially identical to Abe's, will join the coalition government.
Speaking from Paris, she recognized her party's election results as “very tough” and apologized for the dismal showing.
"We had sought to put policies first. But we ended up with a very tough outcome, so I deeply apologize for that," Koike told NHK.
A new center-left Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, formed by liberal former DP members, was vying with Koike's party for the top opposition spot, although both are now set to have just a fraction of the LDP's presence. While national polls showed that the CDPJ was able to win over a third of unaffiliated voters, around 40% of all first-time voters, aged 18 and 19, voted for the LDP.
"Day by day, we felt we were getting more voter support for our call to revive more decent politics, and not fret about whether it's right or left wing," said CDPJ lawmaker Tetsuro Fukuyama.
Several experts noted the ruling bloc's win was less a victory for the conservative, long-ruling LDP than a defeat for a divided opposition.
Shinjiro Koizumi, the LDP lawmaker son of popular former premier Junichiro Koizumi, warned against LDP complacency.
"It's not just that our party has become arrogant and complacent. People are also getting increasingly fed up with us," he told NHK.
Osaka-based Ishin saw its share fall from a first-place 21.7% in 2014 to 8.5% on Sunday, the nationwide poll showed. The Communists sank from 17.7% to 9.8%.
Kyodo news agency estimated turnout on Sunday - when heavy rain from powerful Typhoon Lan lashed much of Japan - at 53.7 percent, one point above the record low in the last lower house election in 2014.
“I think the results reflected the voters’ preference for a solid political foundation and their expectations for us to push policies forward and achieve results,” Abe told NHK.
"Simply put, this was the self-destruction of the opposition," said Zentaro Kamei, a senior research fellow at think tank PHP Institute and former LDP lawmaker.