Abe’s drive to amend Constitution

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is increasingly candid about his bid to amend the Constitution, including its war-renouncing Article 9. He has openly said he hopes to achieve a constitutional amendment while he’s in office — meaning before his current, and supposedly last, term as Liberal Democratic Party president ends in September 2018. Abe’s frank remarks about the sensitive topic have even raised some eyebrows among members of the LDP as well as its ruling coalition ally Komeito, who worry that the prime minister’s emphasis on the issue could alienate voters and unite the opposition parties ahead of the Upper House election this summer. To initiate an amendment for public referendum while Abe is in office, the LDP and like-minded forces need to forge a two-thirds majority in the Upper House in the upcoming triennial race — or find other partners within the opposition camp.

Abe may be seeking to build up public acceptance for a constitutional amendment with his repeated statements on the issue. Voters should be aware that he might get a window of opportunity to propose an amendment depending on the outcome of the Upper House race —as a consequence of their votes — and keep close tabs on what positions lawmakers and their parties take on the issue. As Abe himself reiterates, it is the voters who would make the final call in a referendum on whether to amend the Constitution.

Abe acknowledges that revising Article 9 does not yet have popular support, and says that he would pursue changing the Constitution starting on subjects where public understanding has deepened enough. LDP leaders earlier suggested that they should start on issues that can possibly gain broad support across the political spectrum and popular endorsement, such as an amendment to give the prime minister emergency powers in times of crises such as major natural disasters and an enemy attack on Japan — before tackling more divisive issues such as changing Article 9.

But the prime minister now openly finds fault with Article 9. He calls it strange that Article 9 — which says “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained” — does not mention the existence of the Self-Defense Forces — which he says has the public’s unshakable support after more than 60 years since its founding in 1954. During a Lower House deliberation in early February, Abe referred to the LDP’s draft amendment to the Constitution released in 2012, which calls for changing the latter section of Article 9 to say that Japan has a national defense force.

Abe also seems more forthcoming on why he thinks Article 9 needs to be amended. The LDP draft says the “Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation” and will not resort to the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes — but adds that this will not prevent the nation from exercising its right to defend itself. The LDP has explained that this right to self-defense includes collective self-defense, which allows a country to take military action to defend an ally under attack even when the nation itself is not being attacked.

Abe told a Lower House Budget Committee session early this month that the LDP’s draft amendment was crafted “based on the view that (Japan) can exercise the rights it holds under international law as necessary to protect the lives of the people of Japan.” The government for decades explained that Japan has the right to collective self-defense under international law but cannot exercise it under the war-renouncing Constitution — until Abe changed this interpretation of the Constitution in his Cabinet decision in 2014. The security legislation enacted last year allows Japan to take collective self-defense action only when an attack on an ally threatens Japan’s own survival. The prime minister acknowledges that there are restrictions to Japan’s exercise of its right to collective self-defense under the Constitution. Now he appears to be suggesting that Japan should be able to engage in collective self-defense without any restraints by amending Article 9.

Surprisingly, Abe has even turned to the views of constitutional scholars to support his bid to change Article 9. During a Lower House session last month, Abe cited the need to “correct the situation in which 70 percent of constitutional scholars have doubts” about the constitutionality of the SDF — an issue that has been left unattended for decades. The reasoning sounds in stark contrast to the remark he made last year — in brushing aside the doubts cast by constitutional scholars about constitutionality of the government’s security legislation — that politicians, not constitutional scholars, bear the responsibility to defend the nation and its people.

It may only be natural for Abe, who used to vocally advocate a “departure from Japan’s postwar regime,” to want to see the Constitution — which he repeatedly highlights as a product of Japan’s postwar occupation years — amended while he’s in office. His LDP-Komeito alliance has a two-thirds majority in the Lower House, and such a majority in the upper chamber may not be out of reach in the election this summer if other forces that support constitutional amendments are counted as well — finally securing a condition for the LDP and its allies to initiate a constitutional amendment for public referendum. But that does not mean that amending the Constitution is a pressing issue for the people. Voters should not be swayed by such political ambitions or considerations. Instead they should look beyond the remarks of government leaders and lawmakers to understand what they’re trying to achieve by amending the supreme law.