LONDON – 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 Anything that might suggest a return to outdated myths or undermine human rights would arouse vehement opposition.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.