Japan’s election revealed the uncomfortable conversations the country needs to have

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emerged victorious at the polls, but vital debates around military legitimacy and a looming pensions crisis are yet to be fully addressed

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is also leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), attends a news conference a day after an upper house election at LDP headquarters in Tokyo, Japan July 22, 2019.   REUTERS/Issei Kato
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Less than 24 hours after voting began in Japan's national election on Sunday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared victory for his coalition. Mr Abe had been hoping for a decisive, two-thirds majority in the upper house, but had to settle for a lesser, though still solid, majority.

The two-thirds majority mattered because Mr Abe was hoping to push through a revision to the country's pacifist constitution that he believed would offer greater security. While this may still be possible, reaching that super-majority threshold provided the simplest route to do so. Mr Abe also sought to make changes to the country's tax policies, in order to adequately fund its strained pensions system.

Japan's election was dominated by those two issues. Neither policy is particularly popular. One poll by the country's public broadcaster NHK showed that 57 per cent of voters opposed the tax increase and only 36 per cent wanted to revise the constitution. However, both issues are vital to Japan's future and this election has at least forced them on to the agenda.

The constitutional change is technical but carries great political significance. Mr Abe wants to amend Article 9 of Japan's post-Second World War constitution, written by the United States after Japan's surrender in 1945. The article, which enshrines Japan's pacifist nature and prohibits the country from maintaining a military, would be amended merely to reflect the fact that the Japan Self-Defence Forces are legal.

The JSDF have existed in legal limbo since they were formed in 1954, but are an army in all but name. Japan's military budget is consistently in the global top 10. The difference is in the JSDF’s focus, limited to humanitarian missions and ensuring that the militaries of other countries do not encroach on Japanese territory.

The concern is that the amendment will create a slippery slope towards Japanese military involvement in global conflicts, particularly at a time of heightened tensions in the region. Given Mr Abe's perceived closeness to US President Donald Trump, there is also concern that Tokyo might get pulled into Washington's wars. Proponents of the amendment, however, argue that that being unable to project force overseas removes a threat necessary to pursue peaceful diplomacy.

During the election campaign, Mr Abe told the Japanese people that he wanted them to work longer, pay more taxes, let in more foreigners and, possibly, be ready to fight in distant wars

The pension debate, meanwhile, is part of a wider issue of a greying Japan, raising difficult but essential questions about how retirement will be paid for – and by whom. Mr Abe has said he will increase the pensions of some of those who have already retired and will raise the country's consumption tax this autumn by 2 per cent to pay for it. He has also previously mooted raising the retirement age of 65, by five or even 10 years.

Pensions became a topic in the run-up to Sunday's election when Japan's Financial Services Agency, an industry-wide regulator, published a report arguing that a typical retired couple could not rely on Japan's public pension, and would need to fund an average shortfall of 20 million yen (Dh680,000). It provoked a furious public reaction.

The pensions system is a looming catastrophe and vastly imbalanced for a rich country. Twenty-eight per cent of the population is over 65, and therefore drawing out of the pension fund. Across the rest of Asia, the average is nine per cent.

Worse, the potential support ratio – that is, the number of working-age people compared to those over 65 – is 1.8. The UN warned in a report just last month that this is the lowest ratio in the world. The same report also noted that Japan is one of the few countries in the world where the population is shrinking year on year. Another is Syria.

Put simply, this means that there are fewer workers to pay the taxes necessary to support older people, who are living longer. One answer would be to make Japan's senior citizens work longer. The other would be for Japanese society to accept more immigrants. However, Japan is resistant to large-scale immigration and has no real experience of it.

Other countries that face similar, but less extreme demographic pressures – Germany is a good example – are very open to foreign workers. Indeed, Germany competes with Japan to attract Vietnamese workers to care for its older citizens. The percentage of foreign residents in Japan is just 2 per cent – in Germany it is 12.

Even so, the country is reluctant to admit more people. In December, the Abe government forced through a controversial immigration law that allowed a handful of semi-skilled workers in a small number of industries – mainly hospitality and caring professions – to come in on a five-year visa, renewable only for a further five years. The move came at great political cost.

The impressive longevity of the Japanese citizens has created a problem that only a significant reordering of society can solve. With a new majority, Mr Abe may seek to revive that conversation and make more changes. But this may prove difficult without the two-thirds super-majority he wanted.

During the election campaign, Mr Abe told the Japanese people that he wanted them to work longer, pay more taxes, let in more foreigners and, possibly, even be ready to fight in distant wars. Unusually, for a democracy, the country’s voters have given him the ability to make at least part of this happen.