Abe Divides Japan With Plan to Change Pacifist ConstitutionBy and
Stakes legacy on revising 70-year-old U.S.-drafted document
China and South Korea have expressed unease over proposals
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s sudden rush to change the pacifist constitution that has defined Japan’s security policy since World War II risks eroding his popularity before an election due by the end of next year.
This month, Abe proposed an amendment to recognize the existence of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces while maintaining Article 9, which renounces the right to war and prohibits land, sea and air forces. He wants the change to take effect by 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics.
Rewriting the constitution has been a longstanding goal of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, whose original members -- including Abe’s grandfather, who was a prime minister -- saw the document as a U.S. imposition that humiliated Japan after World War II. For Abe, the timing appears opportune: not only are tensions high over North Korea, but his opponents are weak.
Yet it also carries risks. The public is divided on changing the constitution, and even some members of his own party don’t support it. The issue could galvanize the opposition and potentially hurt Abe’s chances of becoming Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
“It’s going to be very difficult for him to pull this off,” said Gerald Curtis, an emeritus professor of political science at Columbia University who is currently in Tokyo. “It will eat away at his support. Whether it eats away enough to threaten his third term -- that’s unlikely.”
The ambiguous constitutional status of the Self-Defense Forces has resulted in arcane debates over limits on their role. A study by consultant Deloitte found that Japan as a result had the least aggressive defense posture of 18 Asia-Pacific nations it compared this year, based on seven parameters, such as defense spending as a proportion of the economy.
Any constitutional change would require a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament, followed by a referendum. A flurry of recent public opinion polls showed Japanese have mixed feelings about amending a document that an overwhelming majority agree has served their country well.
The change would arguably bring the constitution in line with reality. Since taking office for a second time in 2012, Abe has steadily boosted military spending, which reached about 5 trillion yen ($44 billion) this year. Japan maintains nearly 250,000 troops, hundreds of fighter jets and dozens of warships, although their activities are constrained by law.
"The government has always held that the SDF is constitutional," Abe said in parliament last week. "But, unfortunately as many as 70 or 80 percent of constitutional scholars say it isn’t. It’s our responsibility to change that situation in our generation."
Mass protests ensued when Abe passed laws in 2015 to allow Japan’s armed forces to defend other nations, the latest in a series of moves to expand their remit since the 1950s. Abe has signaled a willingness to compromise over the constitution, discarding a widely criticized draft by the LDP that would have scrapped the ban on maintaining war potential, and adding the sweetener of higher education spending.
Abe’s proposal would do little to bolster Japan’s ability to deal with the growing threat of North Korean missiles. The country already has a two-stage missile defense shield, and the LDP has proposed it consider obtaining a long-range strike capability, which is not considered to be a breach of the current constitution.
“It is a politically driven ambition -- it’s not something that people in the Self-Defense Forces are pushing for,” said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. "I don’t think the armed forces feel that they are being inhibited operationally."
Yet the revision could have real implications for the nation’s military, according to Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. Depending on the wording, the new paragraph could effectively remove the remaining restrictions on the SDF and render Article 9 meaningless, Nakano said.
Japan’s militarism in the early part of the 20th century continues to impact domestic politics and sour relations with China and South Korea, both of which suffered under Japanese aggression in the early 20th century. Abe and new South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed this month to meet as soon as possible, amid disagreement over Japanese compensation for its trafficking of women during its 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean Peninsula.
The constitution change threatens to hurt Japan’s ties with South Korea and China at a time when the Trump administration is seeking a unified approach to North Korea’s nuclear threat. South Korea’s foreign ministry urged Japan to remain “within the mold of the pacifist constitution.” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said this month it hopes Japan “will earnestly draw lessons from history” and safeguard regional peace.
At home, the proposal was panned by the opposition Democratic Party.
“It’s a constitutional revision just for the sake of it,” lawmaker Kenji Eda told reporters on May 12. “There’s absolutely no need to expend the massive amounts of political energy it would require."
Abe is even receiving pushback among members of his own coalition, which he needs to get it through parliament. Yoshio Urushibara, an executive with ruling coalition partner Komeito, told reporters on May 11 that he was “surprised” by Abe’s move.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, seen as a potential successor to Abe, was also lukewarm. He heads a relatively dovish faction within the LDP and represents a constituency in Hiroshima, one of the cities hit with a nuclear bomb during World War II.
"I’ve said that I wouldn’t consider changing the constitution for the time being," Kishida said in parliament last week. "At this point, there is no change in my thinking."
For Abe, the move is personal. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served as prime minister in the 1950s, tried and failed to change Japan’s constitution.
“The legacy he wants to leave is that he’s the prime minister who after more than 60 years has finally gotten the party’s original purpose satisfied,” said Curtis from Columbia University. “He’s fulfilling a family obligation.”
— With assistance by Hooyeon Kim, and Peter Martin