May 3 marked the 70th anniversary of the entry into force of Japan’s pacifist post-war constitution. Significantly, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took the opportunity to formally announce a plan to revise the constitution by 2020.
Constitutional change, in particular the revision of Article 9 – which forbids Japan from using war as a means to settle international disputes – has long been Abe’s cherished ambition. Abe is close to realising his goal after the July 2016 upper house election gave pro-revisionists the critical two-thirds ‘supermajority’ in both houses needed to initiate a constitutional referendum.
This success aside, Abe will have to conduct an intelligent political campaign over the next three years to get the broad church of pro-revisionists to come to an agreement on specific changes. He will also have to convince the public that implementing them is the right way forward.
WHAT’S DRIVING REVISIONIST SENTIMENT?
Historically, Japan’s pacifist constitution allowed the country to focus its resources on building its economy by freeing up funds that would otherwise have been put towards the construction and maintenance of a military. However, this rationale weakened as Japan turned a devastated post-war economy into the world’s second (now third) largest.
Many have stressed that article 9 prevents Japan being seen as an equal player on the world stage. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, for example, argue these restrictions have stood in the way of Tokyo being granted a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Furthermore, the paucity of natural resources in Japan means that the country must import nearly all of its oil, iron ore and other vital commodities; nearly 60 per cent of Japan’s energy supplies come through the South China Sea. As China asserts its dominance in the region, Tokyo has become acutely aware that its trade routes are increasingly at Beijing’s mercy. A short-term solution for Japan could be to reroute its shipments east of the Philippines. Yet with no clear strategy from Washington as to how to effectively combat Chinese territorial creep, finding a way to counter China’s growing power projection capabilities remains a strategic imperative.
CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGE NO SURE THING
Recent polling suggests the Japanese public has become more receptive to broad constitutional change, though many are still cautious about moving away from pacifism, especially under Abe’s leadership.
According to a Kyodo News survey conducted in March, 49 per cent of respondents favoured broad constitutional change while 47 per cent were opposed. This demonstrates a significant increase in pro-revisionist sentiment compared to a similar poll in September 2016 where only 45 per cent of respondents were in favour. But a further question revealed that only 45 per cent supported constitutional change under an Abe administration, while 51 per cent were opposed.
Moreover, a constitutional referendum would not just concern the addition of a clause to article 9. A draft constitution put forward by the LDP in 2012 included a clause that would give government the power to restrict free speech and expression that it sees as “interfering with public interest and order.” Its inclusion in the final draft would cause concern among many Japanese who have taken issue with a perceived trend toward governmental overreach under Abe. For instance, in 2014, Abe was accused of trying to influence the programming of Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK. But perhaps more significantly, Japan’s press freedom, as ranked by Reporters without Borders, has fallen from a global ranking of 22nd in 2012 to 72nd in 2017.
While the LDP have suggested that they won’t use the 2012 draft as the subject of a referendum vote, party executives have qualified this by stating that the draft remains an official party document and lawmakers are still likely to refer to it when drafting new proposals.
IMPLICATIONS FOR ABE, JAPAN AND THE REGION
While Abe will likely have to make compromises to secure continued cooperation from a diverse pro-revisionist cohort, an already diluted LDP stance on article 9 – which would entail including a passage that would legitimise the existence of the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) – will be non-negotiable.
Though Abe seems likely to maintain his office through 2021, when party rules will force him to step down, a failed referendum would make an eventual return to party leadership unlikely. But given the prominence of Nippon Kaigi – a nationalist organisation devoted to historical revisionism and right wing ideology – within cabinet, an Abe exit from the political landscape would not greatly weaken the LDP’s revisionist platform.
A failed referendum would likely see the status quo in East Asia more or less maintained. China will continue to outperform Japan economically and, without a significant Japanese military build-up, it would eventually eclipse its historical rival in terms of military capability. A worst-case scenario for Japan will be a drawdown of US forces in the region. Indeed, the promise of a sustained absence of a capable and proactive US ally in East Asia will only increase the likelihood that Japan’s greatest fear will come to fruition – a US-China ‘grand bargain’ that would leave Chinese dominance uncontested in East Asia.
On the other hand, if Abe is successful in adding a constitutional clause legitimising the SDF, a less passive Japanese defence strategy will be easier to accommodate. In particular, Tokyo will likely become more amenable to joint freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea with the US and potentially other regional partners. Beijing has previously warned that SDF inclusion in FONOPs is a “red line” not to be crossed. This considered, Japan’s participation in such an operation would only increase the likelihood of confrontation between Chinese and Japanese vessels.
Successful revision would also be cause for alarm in Seoul and would enflame an already contentious Japan-South Korea relationship that has been marred by political tension and divisive high profile issues such as the dispute over comfort women. Improving people-to-people relations, which has included increases in South Korean tourism to Japan, would likely be negatively affected.
Finally, to the extent that relaxing article 9 restrictions would make it easier for Tokyo to engage in costly military self-help, a successful referendum could risk defence dominating future government expenditure as Japan’s economy shows only tentative signs of sustained growth.
For now, Abe will endeavour to draft and present an amendment proposal before the end of the year, the specific content of which could have profound consequences for Japan and the region. But he will have to balance many competing interests if he is to successfully oversee his long-sought constitutional revisions.
Henry leads the East and Southeast Asia team. He is an experienced risk analyst and chief editor for matters concerning the East and Southeast Asia region.