What Abe's stunning win means for Japan's pacifist Constitution

Many believe that changing Article 9 is Prime Minister Abe’s lifelong political mission. His coalition now holds a two-thirds majority in both houses of the legislature, opening the door for such reform.

Toru Hanai/Reuters
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes questions after his landslide win in Sunday's elections for the upper house of the Diet.

The result of Sunday's House of Councillors election opens the door for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government to reform the Constitution for the first time in its 70-year history, including the pacifist Article 9 clause. Securing the necessary two-thirds “super majority” in the Diet's upper house (it already had one in the more powerful lower house) is only the first step. A complex process and considerable opposition lie ahead.

Some observers believe Mr. Abe will be too preoccupied trying to revitalize his so-called “Abenomics” strategy, which has been faltering recently, to attempt unpopular constitutional reform. The program of monetary hyper-easing has failed to stem a 20 percent rise in the yen against the dollar over the past year, hurting exporters, or rid the economy of deflation. Meanwhile, business confidence and investment is falling amid ongoing uncertainty about the global economy.

Nevertheless, many believe that reforming the Constitution is Abe’s lifelong political mission; the LDP was founded in 1955 on a platform of rewriting the US-imposed charter, whose Article 9 reads: "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."

Q. What was the outcome of the election, and what does it mean for possible revision of Japan's pacifist Constitution?

Half of the 242-lawmaker upper house, 121 seats, were up for grabs on July 10. The LDP and its coalition partner Komeito, along with the pro-reform Initiatives from Osaka party, won a total of 77, giving them a two-thirds majority. The LDP still holds only 120 of the total seats, meaning it will have to rely on its partners for a two-thirds majority. One potential stumbling block to altering Article 9 is Komeito, the political wing of the traditionally pacifist Soka Gakkai Buddhist organization.

The four main opposition parties formed an unprecedented alliance, fielding one candidate between them in single-member constituencies on a platform of stopping revision of the Constitution. Turnout was 54 percent, demonstrating scant enthusiasm among voters for either the ruling coalition or the opposition.

Nevertheless, the coalition now possesses a two-thirds majority in both houses, a first for any political bloc in the postwar era, creating the possibility of constitutional change. “This is the people’s voice letting us firmly move forward,” said Abe after the results were announced.

Q. How much public support is there for revision, what is the process?

Abe made economics the center of his campaigning, asking voters for a mandate to continue his attempts to pull Japan out of decades of stagnation, deliberately downplaying talk of constitutional issues. And with good reason.

“Opinion polls show 60 to 70 percent of the public are against changing Article 9, so it’s not feasible in the short term,” says Takashi Inoguchi, professor emeritus at University of Tokyo. If Abe did manage to push through reform legislation in both chambers, it would then require a simple majority in a national referendum. While that looks unlikely at present, an increasingly assertive China could yet sway public opinion.

The Chinese government continues to claim sovereignty over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands and has intensified military activity in the area. Japanese Air Self-Defense Force fighters were scrambled against Chinese aircraft a record 199 times between April and June.

Any escalation could spark a rise in nationalist sentiment and mean the results of a referendum on strengthening military capabilities would no longer be a foregone conclusion. “Who predicted Brexit?” notes Professor Inoguchi, referring to the surprise choice of British voters to leave the European Union.

Q. Why does Abe want to change the Constitution if there is currently little support for it?

For many in the LDP, the Constitution is a symbol of a defeated nation, and the fact that it was drafted by the occupying US administration a source of shame. Reform holds special poignancy for Abe, as his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was imprisoned as a suspected war criminal at the time. Kishi was released and later became prime minister, only to be forced out of office after ramming through the renewal of the Japan-US Security Treaty in 1960.

“In terms of extending his grandfather’s legacy, he certainly has that consciousness. He has been in politics to vindicate his grandfather. He talks about the renewal of the Japan-US Security Treaty as being his political awakening,” says Michael Cucek, a consultant and adjunct professor of political science at Tokyo’s Sophia University.

Despite believing Abe will have his hands full with economic issues, Inoguchi calls constitutional reform the prime minister’s “personal dream” and the LDP’s “raison d’être.”

However, Osamu Nishi, a constitutional scholar and professor emeritus at Komazawa University, says Abe, “can do both” and believes some reforms are necessary.

“We have to make our own constitution. Seventy years have already passed since it was created and not a single amendment has been made. There is a gap between the reality at the time and now. It should be based on pacifism, but the current Constitution doesn’t provide for any defense in the event of attack from overseas,” says Professor Nishi.

The literal reading of Article 9 is that the nation can maintain no armed forces, making the current Japan defense forces unconstitutional. Other anomalies include the stipulations for a single-house parliamentary system and full general elections, not the current system that decides half the seats at a time, according to Nishi.

“There are mistakes and clauses with unclear meanings in the Constitution; these need to be swept away before a proper debate can take place,” he adds.

Q. Could a revision raise tensions and lead to a military build-up in Asia?

Any pullback from the current pacifist Constitution would certainly raise ire in South Korea, and particularly China, where Japan’s wartime aggression remains a hot topic.

But Inoguchi says that while “China and South Korea are always apprehensive,” the notion that Japan is returning to the days of imperial expansionism is “ridiculous.”

“In many ways, Japan is becoming smaller and smaller,” he adds.

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