How likely is constitutional change in Japan?
Following the 10 July upper house elections the Abe government now has the two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet necessary to pass constitutional amendments. So what are the likely consequences?
Four years ago, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) published a set of proposals for changing the nation’s postwar constitution. Like its earlier draft changes of 2005, they failed to muster enough support to be turned into legislation, let alone come to a vote.
Although the new numbers in the Diet make constitutional change now possible, there are a number of reasons why it should not be regarded as imminent or inevitable. First of all, any amendments would still have to be approved by a national referendum. A move to strike out Article 9, the clause renouncing war, for instance, would certainly meet stiff resistance since it is an integral part of Japan’s postwar identity as a ‘nation of peace’. Less controversial changes, on the other hand, might be sold to the public.
The current constitution was drafted in 1946 by the US-led occupation authority as it went about disarming and democratising the former enemy. In the 70 years since, the constitution has never been amended, although its pacifist stance has been ‘reinterpreted’ to justify the existence of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (backed today by the world’s 8th biggest defence budget). When the Abe government moved last September to expand the scope of self-defence to include limited forms of ‘collective self-defence’ — allowing the military to go to the aid of an ally if Japan were also threatened — large-scale public protests erupted against what many saw as constitutional revision without due process.
Campaigning on behalf of candidates for the upper house, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe generally avoided the constitutional issue and stuck to economic themes. The combined opposition parties, in contrast, put the constitution front and centre, asking voters to stop the ruling bloc from gaining the crucial two-thirds majority. Abe’s victory could mean the electorate has either grown tired of the constitutional controversy or is more concerned about having a steady hand on the tiller. Both, of course, could be true.
Some commentators believe the Abe government will be fully occupied trying to revive a sluggish economy and won’t want to venture into the minefield of constitutional law. Some senior LDP executives and business leaders are also advising caution. Abe remains committed to revision but concedes the need for deeper discussion on what might be changed and how.
The LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito, would also have to be convinced first, given its long-standing commitment to the status quo.
The LDP’s draft new constitution contains so many problematic changes — including enhancing the status of the Emperor, reducing the importance of the individual versus the state, increasing the power of the executive branch of government and ending the strict separation of church and state — it is highly unlikely the public would swallow it whole. A smarter approach, and one already gaining some momentum, would narrow the focus and include less controversial proposals (for instance, adding a ‘right to privacy’ to the constitution). Retaining most of Article 9 — removing only the reference to disarmament — would also have a greater chance of being accepted.
An exit poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun in conjunction with the upper house election found more voters favoured (unspecified) constitutional change than opposed it, albeit by a narrow margin. An exit poll by the Jiji news agency obtained the opposite result, although one-third of its respondents were ‘unsure’. These surveys sampled the 55 per cent of the electorate who actually turned out to vote — the politically active component of the population the LDP would need in a referendum.
If there has been a shift in the public mood, it could be because a lot has happened since last September: more Japanese have died in terrorist atrocities abroad, China has stepped up its belligerent approach to territorial disputes, North Korea has test-fired ballistic missiles, and US presidential candidate Donald Trump has put Japan on notice to provide for its own defence. The US–Japan alliance was further frayed by the murder of a young woman by a US base employee in Okinawa. At a time of great unease, public approval for the Abe cabinet has rebounded 11 percentage points (to 48 per cent) from its low point of a year ago.
Abe has the remaining two years of his term as party president to fulfil his deeply held ambition to replace Japan’s US-imposed constitution with one reflecting traditional, indigenous values. The prospects for revision may come down to a choice between pragmatism and ideology: whether the revisionists are prepared to revert to a minimalist approach — essentially to establish a precedent for change — or risk everything trying for root-and-branch reform. The ruling bloc may be a step closer to the glittering prize, but this new opportunity brings with it a greater risk of hubris.
Walter Hamilton was the ABC’s Tokyo correspondent for 11 years