By short-circuiting the democratic process, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is abusing the trust put in him by the people. His initiative to reinterpret Article 9 of the Constitution to lift constraints on the Japanese military and permit collective self-defense is the most recent example of how Abe is trampling on Japanese democracy. He and his supporters both in Japan and the U.S. assert that Article 9 is outdated and it is essential that Japan take on a more assertive military role to deal with rising regional threats. These advocates of a more muscular Japanese security posture point out that Japan lives in a dangerous neighborhood and that the limits on Japan’s military actions will undermine the U.S.-Japan alliance. Thus in their view there is an urgent need to allow Japan to participate in military action involving collective self-defense.
Fine. If Abe has such a strong case then by all means make it and work toward revising the Constitution. The procedures to do so are laid out in the Constitution, requiring two-thirds approval in both houses of the Diet and a majority of voters in a nationwide referendum. The hurdles are high as they should be so that the fundamental ground rules of Japan’s democratic system are not unduly politicized or changed capriciously; this is serious business.
Instead, Abe is ramming through a reinterpretation of the Constitution, cynically undermining the rule of law and the Constitution by sneaking in the back door like a thief in the night. This is undemocratic, setting a dangerous precedent in bypassing and making a mockery of constitutional procedures. Abe seeks to overturn the interpretation of Article 9 barring collective self-defense that numerous Liberal Democratic Party-led Cabinets have supported for more than three decades. He and his supporters believe the ends justify the means and seek to avoid the time-consuming procedures of revising the constitution. They have found a devious way to circumvent the Constitution, an artful ploy to tweak its meaning in the name of being a responsible ally of the United States.
Paradoxically, Abe has long advocated revision of the U.S.-written Constitution, asserting that it was aimed at keeping Japan weak and subordinate. So why is he backing away from revision when he is so popular and the LDP dominates the Diet? Because Abe knows he would lose. But this is a fight he should not shy away from if he has the courage of his convictions.
Abe initially went through the motions of acting as if he would patiently consult various actors to seem like he was not just bulldozing ahead. He appointed a blue ribbon panel stacked with people who agree with him. Surprise, surprise it made recommendations supporting Abe’s plans to unleash the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). The political theater then shifted to Washington as Abe dispatched a Diet colleague to consult with the band of Washington insiders that has long prodded Japan to get with the program and he dutifully reported that they also support Abe on collective self-defense. Wow, so Abe got the endorsement of everyone who already agreed with him. But the public isn’t buying this farce and strongly opposes his reinterpretation sleight of hand. And there is also a mutiny in the ranks of the LDP as the Gifu chapter complained about Abe’s haste and the lack of public discussion, a rare dressing down that suggests even his base is ambivalent.
Team Abe has also gone through the motions of consulting coalition partner New Komeito because it can deliver the votes he needs in the upper house. In this charade, New Komeito is putting up a surprisingly robust fight to slow the Abe express, questioning the various scenarios that have been ginned up to sell collective self-defense. By prolonging the drama, the public has seen the LDP squirming as it explains how it plans to keep the SDF on a short leash. Right.
Soka Gakkai, New Komeito’s affiliated religious organization, insists that Abe should respect the Constitution and revise it rather than sneak through a reinterpretation. But this is all political theater as New Komeito stated at the outset of this “battle” that it would not resign from the coalition over this issue, meaning it planned to cave in from the get go.
One of Abe’s top advisers, Isao Iijima, recently threatened New Komeito, saying in Washington that it may be necessary for the Cabinet Legislative Bureau (CLB) to re-examine previous rulings that the relationship between it and Soka Gakkai does not breach Article 20 of the Constitution regarding separation of the Church and state. Come again? The notorious media spin master is now threatening a political party that is giving Abe a hard time because it disagrees with his agenda and underhanded manner of achieving it? Sorry, but isn’t that how democracy is supposed to work? And, since when does the CLB take its marching orders from dubious enforcers?
Yes, Abe did try to co-opt the CLB where the constitutionality of laws are determined by parachuting a sympathetic ambassador into the director’s role last year, but he has had to resign for health reasons and has been replaced by a CLB man. The CLB values its independence and is wary about overturning precedents just because the prime minister would like them to.
Abe is suddenly in a rush to seal the deal on collective self-defense as he senses the media and public opinion is increasingly hostile to his project and wants to get this bad news out of the way before tackling the tax increase in the next Diet session. He also wants the furor to die down before the Okinawan gubernatorial elections in November because it would inflame public opinion and help the antibase candidate.
In deliberately subverting the Constitution and bypassing a referendum, Abe demonstrates yet again he doesn’t trust the people just as he did in ramming the special secrets legislation through the Diet at the end of 2013. Abe’s downsizing of democracy also means ignoring Okinawan sentiments about U.S. bases and overwhelming public opposition to nuclear reactor restarts. One expects a certain amount of craven cozying up to those in power, but recent cringe-worthy examples of international scribes twerking Abe set new lows. In gushing about resolute Abe, they avert their eyes from his undemocratic ways, and towering pile of unfulfilled pledges and promises.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.