Will Shinzo Abe change Japan’s constitution to allow war?

Photo: The White House/Pete Souza

By Loke Hoe Yeong

If Japan’s lawmakers want to revise the country’s pacifist constitution, they now have sufficient numbers to do so.

This, after the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and its allies won a supermajority in the upper house of the Japanese Diet, at elections on 10 July. Mr Abe, who said he was relieved to have won, promised to “deepen debate” on a constitutional revision.

Together, the LDP and its coalition partner, Komeito, won more than 61 of the 121 seats that were being contested in the 242-seat House of Councillors. The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan did not manage to retain its 45 seats they contested at the election. In total, that gave the LDP and its allies 77 out of the 78 seats needed to constitute a two-thirds majority. Additionally, four independent lawmakers without party affiliation have stated their support for constitutional revision.

Given the slim majority though, Mr Abe will probably proceed slowly with such a move. Analysts believe his most likely goal is to create a precedent for future constitutional reform rather than to scrap the war-renouncing Article 9 immediately. Through that article, Japan “forever renounce[d] war as a sovereign right of the nation”. The article also prohibits Japan from maintaining armed forces, although the country has the “Self-Defense Forces”.

Mr Abe’s election victory was muted a few days later, when Japan’s Emperor Akihito was reported by Japan’s state broadcaster NHK that he was considering abdication “in a few years”, a decision possibly linked to health reasons. It does not appear to have been an official announcement though, as the spokesperson of the imperial household has declined to comment on the report.

While the two events were apparently not linked, one could not help noticing that as Abe romped home to victory and spoke with renewed vigour on constitutional revision for Japan, Emperor Akihito, “the first postwar emperor to embrace the pacifist constitution”, announced what could effectively be the end of his reign.

Nevertheless, all of this makes Mr Abe one of the strongest prime ministers in Japan’s recent history, since Junichiro Koizumi. In between, Japan had a new prime minister just about every other year, with all that instability in government that presented. Particularly fractious was the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government that ran the country from 2009 to 2013. Perhaps the tired public wanted some stability after all, and Shinzo Abe began his second term as prime minister in 2012. (He was prime minister from 2006 to 2007.)

Revising Japan’s constitution: Abe’s life ambition?

Ever since it was founded in 1955, one constant point in the LDP’s manifesto has been the revision of Japan’s constitution, a document drafted in 1947 by the victorious US occupation forces in the aftermath of World War II.

This continued right up to Shinzo Abe’s own premiership. Mr Abe has advocated for the revision of the constitution for much of his political career. During the last Diet session, Mr Abe emphasised his “wish to achieve [revision] while I’m in office.”

Since Mr Abe’s current term as leader of the LDP will end in September 2018, this new Diet may be his last shot to achieve his ultimate political goal. It is also the Diet where his party and its allies are most strongly represented.

Regional concerns: don’t forget the East China Sea disputes

With the international preoccupation with the South China Sea dispute at the moment, it is easy to forget about another maritime dispute that also involves China.

While much attention has shifted to Southeast Asia with the increasing tension between the US and China there, the dispute between China and Japan on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea remains unresolved.

Japanese citizens, especially those who were drawn towards voting for the LDP at this month’s upper house elections, could not have overlooked China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, and to extrapolate how that could affect their own country’s defence.

“It’s the economy, stupid”: how about Abenomics?

While Mr Abe’s performance at the polls puts him at his strongest thus far, it was not because of the fruits of the signature economic programme that has borne his name – “Abenomics”.

Stock valuations are not looking good in Japan. The strengthening of the Japanese yen of late is stalling the inflation that Japan needs, in order to spur the appetite for greater investment and wage rises.

Nevertheless, Mr Abe has read his latest electoral gains as a strengthened mandate for him to pursue his programme of economic reforms and restructuring.

“With an even stronger political base, we can and must push forward our economic and diplomatic policies even more aggressively”, he said. “That’s the way to respond to the mandate the public gave us in this upper house election.”