The pacifist Constitution’s parliamentary guardians, known as goken (protecting Constitution forces), have been fading in recent decades while the pro-amendment camp led by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has begun to expand.
Observers say the trend reflects the downfall of the Social Democratic Party, the main successor to the Socialist Party of Japan, which was once the main opposition force but split in the 1990s.
Depending on the outcome of the House of Councilors election in 2016, Japan might move toward revising the national charter, which has remained unchanged since it took effect in May 1947, less than two years after Japan lost the war.
There are no visible signs of a revival for the powerful goken liberals in the Diet who traditionally counter the revisionists.
Former SDP chief Tadatomo Yoshida says the starting point for the Socialist Party of Japan’s decline was the historic decision in 1994 by its then-chief , Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, to end the party’s decades-old practice of treating the Self-Defense Forces as an unconstitutional entity under war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.
“The policy change without full discussions or efforts to win public understanding caused a slump in the party’s parliamentary seats,” Yoshida said.
The SPJ remained the biggest opposition force for about four decades after the 1955 reunification of Japan’s socialist groups.
The party campaigned on a pacifist policy that rejected the Japan-U.S. security alliance and the SDF.
But the LDP, created through a 1955 merger of the nation’s conservative parties, consistently strengthened Japan’s defensive capabilities.
Murayama parted with the SPJ’s main plank when he became the prime minister of a mainly LDP coalition government in 1994, shocking many in and outside his party.
To Murayama, the SPJ basically had no choice but to become more realistic on security affairs. He hoped his party would transform into “a responsible party” from “a permanent opposition party” by breaking with a security policy that was often criticized as too inflexible.
But Murayama’s intentions were not understood by many.
“The Socialist Party of Japan is no longer a force safeguarding the Constitution,” disappointed supporters in civic and regional organizations were often heard saying.
Yoshida, who was then top secretary of the labor union for Oita Prefectural Government employees, bore the brunt of the backlash from Murayama’s pivotal policy change because he was known as a Murayama supporter. Both politicians were born in Oita.
At an extraordinary convention in autumn 1994, the SPJ approved Murayama’s decision, prompting many members to quit and form new parties.
Voters also turned away. In the 1996 House of Representatives election, the renamed Social Democratic Party shrank to 15 seats from 70 in 1993, and was ousted the top opposition party.
Less than a decade later, in the 2005 Lower House election, former SDP leader Takako Doi, who symbolized the champions of the pacifist Constitution, lost her seat, making the party’s demise look nearly irreversible.
Lawyer-turned-politician Mizuho Fukushima stepped into Doi’s shoes and adopted a new credo for the party in 2006 that revived its trademark stance against the SDF as a constitutional entity.
“At that time, I thought we should make clear our stance on peace and the SDF again,” Fukushima said, offering some background to the party’s decision to go back to basics.
But support for the SDP has shown few signs of recovery. In the House of Councilors election in 2013, the SDP won only one seat. Fukushima stepped down to take the blame.
The leadership baton was passed to Yoshida, who visited the hospitalized Murayama in Oita in May last year during the Golden Week holidays to get his advice on rebuilding the party.
Instead of advising Yoshida, however, Murayama complained that his drastic policy change had been wasted by his successors. The former prime minister said his rise to power should have been built on to promote the party’s development.
Now relegated to minor party status with only two seats in the 475-member Lower House and three in the 242-seat Upper House, Yoshida is trying to find a way forward to strengthen ties with labor and civic groups.
But many of those mainstay support groups do not want to be affiliated with the SDP anymore, he laments.
By contrast, the Japanese Communist Party, another anti-amendment force, is making a gradual recovery. The JCP added seats in the most recent Lower House election last year and in the unified local elections last month.
“The biggest point is that we have fought without wavering” under the same banner, JCP Diet affairs chief Keiji Kokuta says in explaining how the JCP differs from the SDP.
But some pundits say the JCP is only drawing support from voters who are critical of the nearly perennial LDP-led ruling coalition but are disillusioned with the main opposition force, the Democratic Party of Japan. So questions remain about whether the JCP’s recovery is sustainable.
Furthermore, the JCP has only 21 seats in the lower chamber and 11 in the upper. Even if it combined forces with the SDP, the goken group in the Diet is to small to vie with the pro-amendment forces, which include the LDP and Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party).
The LDP is aiming to submit a proposal to the Diet to revise the Constitution if it does well in the Upper House election in summer 2016. Given their small presence, the JCP and SDP risk being kept out of the loop in upcoming debates.
On April 3, a meeting took place in the western Tokyo suburb of Chofu following the recent death of Constitution scholar Yasuhiro Okudaira, a founding member of the Article 9 Association, a goken civic group.
Some 900 people attended the event and reiterated their resolve to carry the torch to protect the war-renouncing Constitution for Okudaira, who founded the Article 9 group with Nobel-winning author Kenzaburo Oe and others.
Oe was among the participants at an even bigger anti-amendment rally in Yokohama on May 3, the Constitution Day holiday.
The participants, who the organizer claims totaled some 30,000, also included politicians such as DPJ Acting President Akira Nagatsuma and JCP leader Kazuo Shii.
As illustrated by such events, grass-roots movements to oppose revision of the pacifist national charter are still alive and kicking, but parties that champion their cause, such as the SDP and JCP, have not been very successful in expanding their Diet presence.
Observers say it is unclear whether this means the grass-roots movements themselves are also in decline or whether the parties have lost their appeal among those participating in the movements.