Opinion & Analysis

Shinzo Abe’s push to revise Constitution likely to fail

As Japan heads into a snap election on 22 October, Kevin P Clements and Ria Shibata discuss Shinzō Abe's strong push to amend the Peace Constitution and why he is unlikely to attain the level of public support needed to revise Article 9.

Shinzo Abe Japan PM Story

Shinzō Abe has laid out a timeline to amend the Constitution by 2020. (Photo: 123RF)

OPINION: North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme, coupled with rising tensions related to China’s military expansion, are strengthening Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s call for a more robust military, as well as changes to the Japanese Peace Constitution.

The Japanese population, however, remains sharply divided over whether to amend Article 9 of the Constitution, which has shaped Japanese foreign policy for the last 70 years. Recent polls show about half of the population are committed to defending Japan’s pacifist stance while others are willing to accept some change.

But if North Korean nuclear and missile threats continue, will the Japanese public start embracing Abe’s agenda for a stronger military and a more independent “normal state” (ie. a state that is able to engage in coercive diplomacy when and as necessary)?

What is Article 9?

After Japan’s unconditional surrender and defeat in World War II, the 1947 “imposed” Constitution enshrined liberal political ideals such as people’s sovereignty, human rights and the renunciation of war as the ultimate law of Japan.

Article 9 of the Constitution reads as follows: “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.” The possession of “land, sea and air forces as well as other war potential” is banned. And under Article 9, the Japanese Self-Defence Force (JSDF) has the right to defend mainland Japan in the event of an attack, but is prevented from waging wars on foreign soil or deploying its military in out of area operations. This has meant Japan has been able to develop a robust self-defence force without generating offence to or threatening others in Northeast Asia.

Abe’s proposal to revise Article 9

In May this year, Abe laid out his vision and timeline to amend the Constitution by 2020. In particular, he wanted to revise Article 9 by keeping the two pacifist clauses intact, while adding a third clause that would legitimise the constitutional status of the JSDF.

Abe’s rationale was a desire to provide a constitutional justification for the JSDF, thereby removing any legal ambiguity about its war-fighting as well as its defensive capacity.

He calculated that adding to the Constitution will provoke less popular resistance than changing the Constitution.

Adding a new clause legitimising the JSDF, however, is problematic because it could be interpreted as violating the “war potential” prohibition in the first two clauses of Article 9.

"The Japanese public are uncomfortable about changing Article 9, which remains at the heart of their post-war national identity as a peace-loving nation."

Defining the JSDF in the Constitution as a “force for the nation’s self-defense” also raises the wider question about whether this includes collective self-defence, and provides legitimacy for joining allies in offensive as well as defensive action. This would be a considerable extension of Abe’s reinterpretation of the Constitution in 2014 giving the right to limited collective self-defence when the nation’s own survival is threatened by an enemy attack.

Although his proposal looks restrained, what makes Abe’s announcement about constitutional revision suspicious is the audience to which he presented it, namely Nippon Kaigi, one of Japan’s extreme right-wing groups.

Many conservatives, including Abe, see the US-drafted Constitution as a humiliating imposition or another example of victor’s justice. Revising the Constitution, therefore, has always been their goal. Abe and other nationalists believe the post-war regime imposed by the US destroyed Japanese national pride and esteem, and feel that the Constitution is emasculating – despite the fact that the JSDF is one of the most formidable military machines in Northeast Asia, and the existing pacifist Constitution enables Japan to defend itself if under attack.

Polls evenly split on issue

While Abe’s ambition is to get the Constitution amended while he is in the office, the Japanese public remains divided over whether to amend the war-renouncing Article 9.

Regardless of Abe’s desires, his current popularity rating is very low and there is a high chance that his push for revision will fail. Even if he can muster the mandatory two-thirds support in both upper and lower houses of the Diet, constitutional revision requires a majority of the public's support via a national referendum. Most polls remain fairly evenly split on the issue.

There is absolutely no need to rush the revision. The Japanese public are uncomfortable about changing Article 9 which remains at the heart of their post-war national identity as a peace-loving nation.

The new national security institutions put in place by Abe between 2013 and 2014 centralise security issues in the Executive and legitimate Japanese mobilisation in self-defence. Both of these moves have been accommodated within the existing Constitution. There is no military or security need for constitutional change.

Abe’s position is aimed at reversing an important part of the postwar political agreement. If he is successful, it will generate even more instability in trilateral relations in the region and undermine the pacifist inclinations of over half the Japanese population.

Kevin P Clements is Foundation Chair of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago. Ria Shibata is Research Fellow, National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago. Views expressed in this article are personal to the authors.

– Asia Media Centre