Emboldened by a landslide election victory, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is forecast to push ahead with a constitutional amendment for greater military freedom and revisionist foreign and security policies, darkening prospects for a thaw with Seoul.
In a snap election Sunday, his Liberal Democratic Party secured a solid majority, with at least 290 seats in the Diet's lower house. Another 35 went to the conservative party's coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, giving them more than two-thirds of the 475-seat chamber.
The bigger-than-expected sweep will give Abe four more years in power and the coalition to override any challenges in the upper house. Shinzo Abe, Japan`s prime minister and ruling LDP president, points to a journalist as he takes questions during a news conference at the party`s headquarters in Tokyo on Monday. (Bloomberg)
While the premier's top priority was likely to remain on the economy, it will also provide a fresh impetus to his long-cherished quest for a normal state with a full-fledged military and a more nationalist foreign policy agenda.
Japan's relations have plunged with Korea and China since Abe took office in December 2012. The two nations deem efforts to reflect on the country's imperial past as essential to improving ties.
In July, Tokyo lifted a longstanding ban on exercising collective self-defence by reinterpreting its Constitution's war-renouncing Article 9, which barred it from waging war and possessing war-related materials.
A buoyed Abe would now move toward a constitutional revision, which requires support from at least two-thirds of members of both houses.
"Even if we secure support from two-thirds of lawmakers, we must also obtain a majority support in a national referendum," Abe said in a television interview after the election.
"We want to start with trying to deepen public understanding about the need to amend the Constitution."
The win deepens the dilemma of the Park Geun-hye administration, which is seeking to reset Korea-Japan relations on the 50th anniversary of their normalization next year.
Seoul has been trying to improve the mood through a high-level trilateral meeting including Beijing, a meeting between Park and Japanese business leaders and other conciliatory gestures.
As Korea calls for a resolution of the wartime sex slavery issue as a prerequisite for reconciliation, however, it will have limited options when the Abe government refuses to budge, while pressure is growing over a lack of foreign policy achievements.
The two countries launched director-general-level talks in April to tackle the issue of Japan's sexual enslavement of Korean women during World War II. But they made little headway despite five rounds of negotiations, due to stark differences in their positions. Seoul has been demanding an official, sincere apology and compensation for the victims, while Tokyo claims the issue was settled in a 1965 agreement that normalized bilateral relations.
Abe faces mounting challenges to his own ambitions, with large swaths of the Japanese public opposing his hawkish drives and the international community increasingly voicing concerns. The decision to call an election perplexed many voters.
With four more years ahead, he may now exert relatively more flexibility without having to consider his conservative support base and take steps to defrost relations with neighbours, some observers say.
"There are two possibilities that Abe would toughen his line according to his belief, and that he may become more moderate in terms of external relations with greater political leeway," a Seoul official said on condition of anonymity.
"The prime minister's statement to be released in time for the 70th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II (on Aug. 15, 2015) could be a crucial mark for future relations."