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Abe’s misplaced priorities

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterates that he wants to make Japan once again a “normal” country. Most foreign observers do not see Japan as an abnormal country. Every country has its own history and traditions and cannot obliterate or alter what has happened in the past.

Many leaders have tried to rewrite history, but although they may convince some of their followers to adopt their interpretation of the historical facts, they are doomed to fail in the long run. Whatever their apologists say, the crimes of evil tyrants such as Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong cannot be expunged from the records. British participation in the slave trade is a blot on our history, which later British efforts to stop the trade soften but cannot erase.

To make Japan a “normal” country, Abe apparently thinks that it is necessary to revise the postwar Constitution. It is not yet clear whether he would be satisfied by a modification of Article 9 or will also try to push through other changes, such as changing the status of the Emperor. Any attempt to change the “peace” Constitution will be highly controversial. Anything that might suggest a return to outdated myths or undermine human rights would arouse vehement opposition.

If he calls an election at a propitious time and can win the backing of Komeito, Abe may be able to achieve the two-thirds Diet majority he needs to call a referendum. But could he then win popular support for a revision of the Constitution?

In Britain we know that referendums are chancy affairs and dubious elements in modern democratic practices. The referendum on Scottish independence was almost lost by supporters of the union partly through complacency and partly through a surge in popular support for the Scottish nationalists. The referendum has not settled the issue. Nor will the European referendum, unfortunately promised by Prime Minister David Cameron, be likely to settle for long the issue of Britain’s participation in the European Union.

A referendum in Japan calling for constitutional changes will inevitably arouse strong feelings. Demonstrations and counter demonstrations could lead to civil strife and unrest. The Japanese economy could be affected and people hurt. Japan’s image as a stable and peaceful democracy in Asia would at least be dented.

The reactions in China and South Korea to efforts to change the Constitution will be hostile. Japanese investments in China could suffer, trade with Japan could be undermined and Japanese nationals threatened.

Questions will also be asked in the rest of Asia as well as in Europe and North America about the implications of constitutional revision in Japan. In particular there will be fears about a revival of Japanese nationalism and of a revival of irredentism. These fears will be exacerbated by Japanese historical revisionism.

Does Abe really believe that it is in Japan’s best interests to press ahead with constitutional revision proposals in the face of such real risks? Are the changes in wording, which he will seek, so vital for his vision of Japan? Are there not much more important issues, which confront Japan today?

Despite his three “arrows,” the economy has not yet emerged from deflation and stagnation. Further efforts to reform and reflate the economy should be the No. 1 priority.

Japan faces a population crisis. The population is aging and declining. This reduces the proportion of working people and has serious implications for Japan’s prospects of growth and future prosperity. Finding ways of reducing the economic and social threats arising from population decline are more important than making amendments to the Constitution, which has served Japan well enough for nearly 70 years, whatever its alleged imperfections

There are also major foreign policy issues that Japan must confront in 2016. The Chinese economy has had a bad beginning this year and it is far from clear that the Chinese government knows how to get the economy back on track. President Xi Jinping has combined his campaign against corruption with a crackdown on dissidents. The Chinese authorities might well see an alleged threat from Japan as an excuse for whipping up anti-Japanese Chinese nationalism and as a way of diverting attention from China’s own problems.

2016 is an election year in the United States. Japanese governments in the past have tended to favor the Republicans on the grounds that they are more reliable on trade issues, but what would happen to the U.S.-Japan relationship, so lauded by the late Sen. Mike Mansfield, if a Republican candidate were to win in the primaries and with populist support become the next president?

The thought of a President Trump or Cruz must send shudders down the spine of every foreign observer. The Japanese government’s immigration policies are liberal compared with those advocated by Donald Trump. More importantly for Japan, he has declared that he will demand that the Japanese pay all American costs for the defense of Japan. The Futenma problems pale into insignificance in comparison with the difficulties of negotiating on these costs with an American team under orders from a President Trump.

Britain and Europe would also face major problems if one of the more extreme Republican candidates won the nomination and was elected, but that would be little consolation for Japan. Britain, of course, does not have to worry about amending its “constitution” as it does not have a formal written one. The British “constitution” can be summed up as the laws and precedents set over the centuries by Parliament.

Why waste so much time and effort, why risk so much when there are so many more pressing problems which Japan faces? Is Abe living in an imaginary past? Japan like Britain has to come to terms with its diminished power in the world of the 21st century. Japan has to accept that while it still has much to offer the world, its influence like its population will continue to decline.

Hugh Cortazzi was the British ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

  • Tachomanx

    What is the author meaning?

    Japan’s constitutional reform will likely be mostly cosmetic leaving much of what it alread is in place.

    The only things I see changing are the war renouncement as the current article 9 is mostly ignored anyway and puts too many constraints on the country’s capacities.
    A rigorous application of that article and it’s provisions would make the SDF existence illegal to begin with.

    The desire to reform the constitution stems as well from the fact that the current paper was imposed by a foreign power. I doubt that the british would be happy if they had a law imposed by Washignton or the EU even if it was the best written and most advantageous document ever delivered to the british people.

    As for backlash from China or Korea. No matter what one do or don’t, there is no helping those fronts as hatred for Japan is an institutional policy.
    Also, japanese invetsments in China have been on the decline ever since the Senkaku issue exploded a couple of years ago so risks on that front are also neglible, and today more than ever.

    This is having a national japanese document made by the japanese for the japanese. Thus leaving behind the abnormal state of the country once and for all as all war time ghosts have long been put to rest. Not to mention that the author seems to forget that the article 9 new interpretation was largely welcomed around the world (The UK included) and by the region, beyond China and Korea of course.

    Finally, the figure of the Emperor would probably be made a head of state much in line with the UK OWN’S MONARCHY! And no one would care as it’s mostly a powerless diplomatic position anyway.

    • Firas Kraïem

      Abe has expressed his views on what should be in the Constitution often enough for it to be clear that the changes he wants go well beyond Article 9.

    • A.J. Sutter

      Your comment is entirely ignorant of the proposed draft Constitution promulgated by the LDP in early 2012. It’s a very radical document that would limit the human and civil rights of all who live in Japan. The document is still available from the LDP’s Japanese-language website, along with a Q&A. If you live here you should read these or find someone with the patience and ability to explain them to you. If you don’t live here, then your comments on the significance of constitutional reform in Japan aren’t very helpful anyway.

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        Indeed A.J., while all the attention has been focussed on the push for changing the role of the Self-Defence forces, there are other things slated for change (such as freedom of religion) that affect everyone at a basic level.

  • nosnurbd

    Very well put. Japan has from the beginning tried to emulate the West, the Big Boys. The greed holds the U.S. relationship together. Now PM Abe wants to follow the U.S. down the war path of profits and hoped for respectability. There are too many “real problems”. Japan should be making peace with its neighbors, especially China, Korea and Russia. To be smart they would be on the peace path like no other country in the world could be.

  • nosnurbd

    Very well put. Japan has from the beginning tried to emulate the West, the Big Boys. The greed holds the U.S. relationship together. Now PM Abe wants to follow the U.S. down the war path of profits and hoped for respectability. There are too many “real problems”. Japan should be making peace with its neighbors, especially China, Korea and Russia. To be smart they would be on the peace path like no other country in the world could be.

  • Bradley Fried

    “Is Abe living in an imaginary past? ” Yes. He is in thrall to his romantic notions about militarism and empire under the old Imperial system that ultimately led to Japan being burned to the ground and left to starvation and poverty. Japan has had greater freedom and prosperity under the postwar constitution than it ever did under the pre-war order.