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The showdown that obscured Japan's national security debate

Opposition Democratic Party legislator Yukio Edano, bottom, explains a no-confidence motion against the cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, top, in the Diet Friday.

TOKYO -- After three nights of high-stakes drama, the upper house of the Japanese parliament finally passed controversial national security bills early Saturday morning, enacting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ambitious measures to expand Japan's defense roles overseas.

     "It is legislation that is necessary to protect the people's lives and peaceful living and to prevent wars," said Abe after the legislation's passage. "Japan now has a legislative framework necessary to maintain peace."

     Given the majority held by the ruling coalition in both chambers of the Diet, it was an expected outcome. Yet, spurred by the growing number of protesters who surrounded the parliamentary building every night, the opposition put up a fierce fight, drawing out the process with a string of censure motions.

     At the same time, preoccupied with the theatrical showdown, which could affect the upper house election next summer, lawmakers largely neglected substantive debate on the historic shift in national security policy.

     "Are we really going to let a man who has shown no capacity to learn stay on as prime minister?" Yukio Edano, the secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, said in the lower house on Friday. In explaining the no-confidence motion against the cabinet submitted by the opposition, Edano went on to criticize the government in a lengthy filibuster.

     He was apparently planning to speak for four hours, which would have been the longest in the body's history, but he only managed to keep it up for one hour and 44 minutes. Still it helped to delay the final vote on the bills in the upper house.

     The ruling coalition wanted to avoid facing a filibuster every time a censure or no-confidence motion was submitted, so they fought back with motions limiting debate times. But because explaining the purpose of the no-confidence motion is not debate, Edano took advantage of that loophole. 

     "We must delay the passage until at least 12:01 a.m. Saturday," said Jun Azumi, acting chair of the DPJ Diet Affairs Committee. The opposition was desperate to stall the bills until the series of holidays known as Silver Week, scheduled to start Saturday. He repeated those words like a mantra to both junior and veteran lawmakers, who were obviously growing weary of the nightly battles.

     They were counting on office workers leaving work Friday night to join the ranks of the demonstrations outside the Diet. The opposition parties soldiered on, hoping the evening broadcasts of the rallies and legislative dealings would provide the push they needed.

     However, they soon found themselves running out of options. Taro Yamamoto of the People's Life Party took his time walking over to the ballot box casting his vote for the censure motion against Abe. Masaaki Yamazaki, president of the upper house, hastened him by threatening to close the vote. Yamamoto later tried the same trick multiple times, only to receive the same warning.

     Although the ruling party eventually triumphed in the political back-and-forth, members still wonder if they won a Pyrrhic victory, especially when next summer's elections come around. "The two sides were unable to have a meaningful discussion about the security bills, all the way to the eleventh hour," an LDP official lamented. "The bills were used to turn public opinion against the administration."

     According to a poll taken by the Nikkei Aug. 28-30, 55% of the respondents were against passing the security measures during the current session while 27% were in favor. "We will explain to the public the legitimacy of the laws, however long it takes. We must not waver in trying to secure [the people's] understanding," Sadakazu Tanigaki, secretary-general of the LDP, said in Friday's press conference.


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