This is the second report in a four-part series looking at the past seven decades during which Japan maintained its national security while enjoying economic prosperity, and the ongoing social changes that could determine the country’s future course.
World War II left 3 million Japanese dead, totaled the economy and turned most of the major cities into rubble and ash.
The people 70 years ago, defeated, their country destroyed, aspired for peace. An overwhelming majority embraced war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution when it was promulgated in 1946.
Japan’s political landscape has undergone drastic changes since then.
In the Lower House election on Dec. 14, the Liberal Democratic Party led by nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a vocal advocate of revising the pacifist Constitution, won a landslide victory that potentially extended his term by four years.
The LDP’s win has revived long-lingering questions for many observers both at home and abroad: How far has Japan leaned to the right? Is Japan trying to shed its legacy of postwar pacifism?
Experts recently interviewed by The Japan Times all agree Abe’s LDP has been advocating more nationalistic, right-leaning policies in recent years as the party apparently tried to contrast itself with the center-left Democratic Party of Japan, its main rival, which ran the government from 2009 to 2012, relegating the LDP to the opposition camp.
Media polls have meanwhile shown that few general voters are agreeing to go rightward with it, the experts said.
Voters are believed to have supported the LDP mainly because of its economic policies, placing less priority on Abe’s nationalistic agenda.Abe in fact called the snap election to seek a mandate for his decision to delay until next year the second stage of the consumption tax hike, after the economy reeled from the first stage, which lifted it to 8 percent from 5 percent last April.
“Many people overseas are probably paying great attention to nationalistic, right-leaning trends in Japan. But that tendency has not been observed in (media poll) data on voters,” said Taku Sugawara, associate professor of political science at the University of Tokyo.
The major daily Yomiuri Shimbun has conducted annual opinion polls asking the same questions on constitutional issues since 2002. The results apparently back up Sugawara’s observation, as far as public attitudes toward Article 9 of the Constitution are concerned. Respondents seeking to amend Article 9 declined from a peak of 44.4 percent in 2004 to 30 percent last February, while those opposing revision rose to 60 percent from 46.7 percent in the same period.
To make it easier to amend the Constitution, Abe vocally called for revising Article 96 to lower the lawmaker voting ratio required to initiate a national referendum on constitutional revision from two-thirds to half of all members in both the Lower and Upper houses.
But the same 2014 Yomiuri poll showed 52 percent opposed Abe’s proposal, while 38 percent preferred, one way or another, to lower the ratios required for a referendum.
“You can’t say a nationalistic trend has grown among the Japanese people in general,” Sugawara said.
Sugawara noted, however, that more people may have the impression that younger Japanese are becoming more nationalistic than ever. But that’s simply because it has become much easier to be exposed to more radical opinions, thanks to the growth of Internet-based services, Sugawara said.
Koji Nakakita, professor of political science at Hitotsubashi University, said it is true the LDP has advocated more nationalistic policies in recent years to differentiate itself from the DPJ. “Yes, the LDP has been leaning more toward the right, though it does not mean it’s becoming an extreme right-wing party like those in Europe,” Nakakita said.
Nakakita said the LDP started to emphasize more conservative, right-leaning policies in the late ’90s, after the DPJ was established in 1998 and emerged as a rare, legitimate rival.
When the DPJ was in power in 2012 and the LDP was the main force in the opposition camp, the LDP drew up a draft for an entirely new Constitution that emphasized more nationalistic, conservative values. So why did the LDP coast to a landslide victory on Dec. 14 despite the public’s apparent disapproval of Abe’s quest to revise the Constitution?
Many experts point to the fact that voter turnout set an all-time low of 52.66 percent on election day. This means nearly half of all eligible voters didn’t go to the polls, probably because they are indifferent to politics or deeply disillusioned with their politicians.
The ballot count also showed that only about 17 percent of eligible voters backed the LDP in the proportional representation segment of the election.
“People have been preoccupied with their everyday lives,” Sugawara said. “They just feel the economy is more important than other issues. Not many people are drawn by Abe’s nationalistic policies.”
According to a Dec. 15-16 poll by the daily Asahi Shimbun, 33 percent of respondents cited social security and 30 percent chose economic conditions and jobs as the issues Abe must focus onEnergy and education came in third at 9 percent each, with only 3 percent of the 1,166 respondents selecting constitutional revision.
“A majority of voters believes Abe doesn’t need to push his security policy agenda. Constitutional revision is not something Abe can vocally advocate,” said Naoto Nonaka, a political science professor at Gakushuin University in Tokyo.
“Abe will prioritize the economy and see how voters react first,” Nonaka said.
Nakakita of Hitotsubashi University believes Abe is a history revisionist who wants to hold Japan less responsible for its various wartime misdeeds. But Nakakita doesn’t believe Abe is a simple-minded nationalist who would easily resort to reckless, provocative diplomatic or military action.
“What Abe is mainly concerned with is Japan’s national pride and other cultural issues,” Nakakita said.
“I think he will maintain a rather realistic diplomatic stance,” he said.