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Constitutional revision debate could make or break ‘Abenomics’

by Jochen Legewie

Special To The Japan Times

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s popularity continues — the latest Nikkei and TV Tokyo survey shows his approval rating at 66 percent, his Liberal Democratic Party’s victory in the Upper House election seems highly probable, “Abenomics” is still on course, and even medium-term economic growth seems possible if — and this is a big “if” — his promised reforms actually materialize.

No major single issue has threatened this outlook so far. But one is looming on the horizon: the Constitution.

Ever since its founding in 1955, the LDP has been trying to rewrite the pacifist Constitution, which was effectively drafted by the United States back in 1946. Abe has long championed the issue, which includes war-renouncing Article 9.

Media surveys signal that a growing number of Japanese support revision. Clinching the Upper House election could bolster Abe’s quest, although he admits that his party and its ally, New Komeito, would still be short of the two-thirds majority needed to propose a national referendum.

Many of Japan’s business leaders are silently lobbying for him to abandon constitutional revision because the adverse long-term effects of rekindling friction with China and South Korea would threaten their interests in mainland Asia. They are frightened that merely bringing up the topic will derail the nation’s efforts to focus on reform and revive the economy.

This group is clearly in favor of Option 1: Keep a low profile and stay away from the issue.

But doing nothing might not be an option for Abe, who has made constitutional revision his pet project. The more likely scenario for him is Option 2: Ignite a nationwide debate on constitutional revision.

This move would likely come with all the usual jockeying, intra-party faction building, controversies and infighting that could sabotage Japanese reform efforts.

Equally important: Such a discussion would be likely exploited by China and South Korea. Both have increased their criticism of Japan’s perceived rise in nationalism over the past several months.

Just look at how Chinese Premier Li Keqiang branded Japan as the thief of the Senkaku Islands at a speech in Potsdam, Germany, on May 26. Or how South Korea reacted to Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s controversial remarks on Japan’s “comfort women” system of wartime sexual slavery. If a full-fledged debate on constitutional revision is held, accusations of a “rebirth of a Japanese nationalism” will follow, whether apt or not.

Is there a way to get around these two options?

I argue yes. Core to the issue is addressing the disconnect between perception and reality regarding Japan’s wartime past and its view of that.

Following their defeat in World War II, both Japan and Germany were prosecuted by the Allied powers for war atrocities. Unlike Germany, however, Japan hasn’t succeeded in expressing genuine remorse or apology in a way fully accepted by its victims — especially China and South Korea. This is despite numerous, albeit carefully worded, apologies issued or repeated by past prime ministers, including Yasuhiro Nakasone, Tomiichi Murayama, Ryutaro Hashimoto and Junichiro Koizumi.

The ire generated by the government’s history textbook screenings and continuing debates over the comfort women issue seem to contradict full remorse. Likewise, comments by high-ranking individuals have repeatedly nullified the credibility of the government’s apologies and statements.

I am not simply suggesting the distribution of another apology. Germany and Japan have rather different diplomatic positions. Germany is no longer facing outright opponents on the global political stage. But China — and to a lesser degree South Korea — continue to leverage anti-Japanese sentiment as part of domestic policy, sometimes even nurturing that sentiment via deliberate education policies.

Despite these facts, I recommend that the Japanese government find a proper framework for issuing a timely summary of its statements on its wartime past. And this should be in the form of a Diet declaration signed by both chambers. That would provide a much more powerful stance than past declarations issued by various governments or individual prime ministers.

Such an action must not result from “gaiatsu,” or outside pressure, but come from within and be announced to the world in a prominent way that gives China and South Korea no chance to doubt it. Major actions and new initiatives, such as regular international conferences or new youth exchange programs, should then be set up to back the one-time statement with permanent, tangible action.

Such a declaration by both chambers of the Diet would ensure that nobody will ever again be able to seriously doubt Japan’s stance just because of the remarks of a few individual politicians.

But back to business: Germany’s path to becoming Europe’s leading economic powerhouse was only paved by openly addressing its wartime past in a highly consistent and credible way over several decades.

Germany’s perception as a good European neighbor has become so solid now that even efforts by some to revive the image of the ugly German because of objections to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s strict austerity stance throughout the eurozone debt crisis have not borne fruit. German companies continue to benefit from a closely knit regional economic framework that is still missing in Asia.

Japan should take a page from Europe’s playbook and fully act on this need. It will be increasingly difficult to thrive economically without solid and stable political relations in Asia, home to two of the world’s most viable economic players.

Hope comes in the strong communications team Abe has assembled. As I said in my previous column, there has never been a Japanese administration as good at communicating in such a smart and professional way as this one.

But Japan doesn’t need spin-doctors. It needs a clear stance on its war past and the will and the ability to consistently communicate that to the world.

In the end, this approach could turn Abe into a real leader in the eyes of the world. It could also help him succeed at home with structural economic reforms, or prevent them from derailing before they even get started.

It might even be the only viable approach toward revising the Constitution.

Jochen Legewie is president of German communications consultancy CNC Japan K.K. (See his blog: www.cncblogs.jp).