Shinzo Abe Aims to Amend Japan’s Pacifist Constitution

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Carl Court/Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just won re-election in a landslide and is triggering a political earthquake by calling for Japan’s “Pacifist Constitution” to be revised so that the military has more flexibility to be deployed abroad. Does he have the votes? Will the public support him? And will North Korea’s saber rattling make the difference?

What Is Being Proposed?

Prime Minister Abe doesn’t want to scrap the entire Japanese Constitution, but he wants to revise Article 9 so that it guarantees Japan’s right to have a military. He promises to keep the section about Japan renouncing offensive-based war.

Of course, Japan already has a military. Better known as the SDF, or “Self-Defense Forces,” Japan’s armed forces boast nearly a quarter of a million military personnel and have a budget of $50 billion, which makes SDF larger than the British military forces.

Asian analysts fear that such a move, while simply affirming the status quo, would trigger alarms in Beijing, Seoul and Pyongyang. An officially militarized Japan might prove to be a tough foe for these countries in a military dispute.

Will Prime Minister Abe Have the Votes?

On October 22, 2017, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature (the Japanese House of Representatives and Japan’s House of Councillors), according to CNN. That would be enough to amend the Japanese Constitution.

But not all in the coalition are convinced that such changes are a good idea. The LDP’s junior partner (Komeito) is more wary of revising the Japanese Constitution, given their more centrist leanings. The election was more about Abe’s experience against a brand new populist political party, not a referendum on a new governing document. The election had one of the lowest turnouts of any Japanese election in recent years.

Does the Public Want the Pacifist Constitution Overturned?

Agence France Presse reports that public sentiment for revising the Japanese Constitution on military affairs is lukewarm at best: “A poll by the top-selling Yomiuri newspaper this month showed 35 percent of respondents agreed with the prime minister’s bid to officially recognize Japan’s military in the constitution, while 42 percent opposed the idea.” But that’s better than two years ago, when 61 percent opposed such changes to the Japanese Constitution, according to Jared Genser and Michelle Brigone.

Has This Been Tried Before by Japanese Governments?

This is not the first time someone has proposed tinkering with Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu of the LDP took a shot at such an effort. Though scandal eventually bounced the young prime minister, his proposal to send Japanese troops abroad to the 1991 Gulf War didn’t help matters. During Kaifu’s comeback attempt, he lost his seat in the legislature, the first time that had happened to a former prime minister since the 1960s.

Popular former Prime Minister Junchiro Koizumi held a longer tenure in office than most Japanese chief executives, but even he couldn’t alter Article 9 the way he wished to.

Abe has made a similar push in the past. But like so many others, he got tangled up in details. It seems he, like so many World War II “apologists,” made the politically indefensible claim that some “comfort women” forced into service really weren’t so unwilling to participate. Defending the brutal actions by Japanese forces in the 1930s and 1940s is usually a non-starter for winning support for the measure at home or abroad. Clearly one needs more than a big majority in the Japanese Diet to get the job done.

Could North Korean Belligerence Make a Difference?

There’s one variable that could sway the Japanese public and risk-averse politicians into dumping Article 9. And it’s the biggest wild card of all: North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un.

So far, his missile tests and war of words have largely failed to inspire a groundswell of support. But if something were to escalate the situation, a quick vote might be all that is necessary to make a change.

Why It Matters

The longest enduring formal alliance between at least two major powers is the U.S.-Japanese Security Pact. Forged in the early 1950s, and renewed in 1960, the bilateral deal has endured longer than most treaties of its kind.

If such a change is to be made, and a bow is made to reality, then now is the time to do it. With Abe’s promise that Japan won’t advocate offensive war, it sounds like a good deal for the U.S. to accept, especially if it won’t be accompanied by any defense of World War II acts that open up old World War II wounds.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.

Shinzo Abe Aims to Amend Japan’s Pacifist Constitution