Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces almost insurmountable obstacles to completing his career-long quest to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution. That won’t stop him from trying.
The premier opened a new session of parliament on Monday with a fresh call to revise the country’s U.S.-imposed postwar constitution. Abe has raised the issue at almost every public speaking opportunity since the new year, saying he wants to make full use of what he expects will be his final 20 months in office.
“The constitution shows what form the country will take,” Abe said. “It’s our responsibility as lawmakers to put forward a proposal for what kind of country we should aim to be in the future,” he added in comments that drew hearty applause from lawmakers of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Success would help burnish Abe’s legacy after becoming the country’s longest-serving prime minister in November. Rewriting the constitution was one of the founding principles of the LDP, which argues the move is needed to give Japan’s “self-defense” forces greater legitimacy and secure Tokyo’s interests around the globe.
While many in the right-leaning LDP view the constitution imposed in 1947 as a symbol of Japan’s humiliation after World War II, the document has broad political support. Previous talk of amendments, or changing laws to allow Japanese troops to fight abroad, has led to street protests – something Abe may want to avoid as Tokyo prepares to host the Summer Olympics.
Abe’s challenge wasn’t made any easier by his failure in July to win a two-thirds majority in parliament’s upper house, something that would’ve helped him push through any change. He must also overcome a pushback from within his ruling coalition.
“In terms of political priorities, I don’t think public interest is necessarily strong,” Natsuo Yamaguchi, who leads Abe’s Buddhist-backed coalition party, Komeito, told NHK on Jan. 12. “We have to look at this calmly and realistically as we move ahead.”
Although a change would please Japan’s sole military ally, the U.S., which has been prodding Tokyo to take a more assertive security role, it could complicate Abe’s other diplomatic efforts. The government is preparing for a state visit this spring by President Xi Jinping of China, where suspicion of Japan’s military ambitions still runs deep.
South Korea, which has been feuding with Japan over a host of war-related grievances in recent months, has urged its neighbor to “remain within the mold of the pacifist constitution.” Meanwhile, North Korean state media denounced Abe’s efforts to amend the document in a commentary Wednesday as “a revelation of wicked design to turn Japan into a military giant.”
Abe has already outlined his proposed changes – including adding wording to the war-renouncing Article 9 that would make explicit the constitutionality of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. The country maintains almost 250,000 troops, hundreds of fighter jets and dozens of warships, although their activities are constrained by law.
Japan has also sent troops overseas on several occasions – and plans to send a naval destroyer and two surveillance planes to the Middle East next month on an information-gathering exercise in a region that provides the country with the bulk of its oil.
Japan spends about 5 trillion yen ($45 billion) annually on defense. It has ramped up its financing each year that Abe has been in office, in an effort to counter the growing capabilities of nuclear-armed neighbors such as China, Russia and North Korea, which has fired missiles over Japan.
“I am unwavering in my desire to be the one who achieves a revision of the constitution,” Abe told public broadcaster NHK in an interview broadcast Jan. 12.
Even if Abe were to cobble together the two-thirds majority needed in both houses of parliament to pass a change, he would still need to pass a national referendum. Some surveys have shown a growing voter willingness to debate the issue, but there’s no clear public consensus for a revision.
A poll by the Sankei newspaper and Fuji News Network this month found that 53.5% of respondents were against changing the constitution. A little more than half said they didn’t approve of a revision under the Abe administration.
Abe enters the year hobbled by scandals that have led to the arrest of a sitting LDP lawmaker accused of taking bribes from a Chinese company seeking to be involved in the local casino industry. He also faces lingering questions over whether he improperly rewarded constituency supporters with invitations to a publicly funded cherry blossom-viewing party.
While some in Japan’s splintered opposition want to avoid debating the constitution, Shiori Yamao, a lawmaker with the Constitutional Democratic Party and a former prosecutor, said she wanted to start discussions as soon as possible. In a Jan. 16 interview, she expressed concern that a referendum could be held without the public fully understanding the implications.
“Prime Minister Abe has a concrete proposal that would write the SDF into the constitution,” she said. “We are against that. If you just write in that they exist without setting rules for their activities, there will be no constitutional restraints.” Isabel Reynolds & Emi Nobuhiro, Bloomberg
Article 9 of the Constitution
1. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
2. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.