Abe’s amendment strategy

Right after his ruling coalition’s big gains in the July 10 Upper House election, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe effectively put his bid for amending the Constitution on the agenda of Diet discussions, urging parties to work toward building a consensus for revision — beginning as early as in an extraordinary session to be convened this fall. He is making the call now that pro-amendment forces have finally come to control two-thirds of the seats in both chambers of the Diet — a condition for initiating an amendment for approval in a national referendum. What’s still not forthcoming, however, either from the prime minister or most other proponents of revision, is which part of the Constitution needs to be changed, how or why now.

What’s particular about Abe’s push for an amendment is his repeated emphasis on how the 1947 Constitution was drafted while Japan was under the Allied Occupation following its surrender in World War II. His statements echo the views of many amendment proponents that the Constitution must be revised because it had been “imposed” on the nation by the Occupation powers. While the prime minister’s statements reflect his advocation of a “departure from Japan’s postwar regime,” they border on a lack of respect of the Constitution. Under such a way of thinking, it appears as if amending the Constitution is an end in itself, not the means to achieve concrete objectives. That hardly sets the stage for rational discussions on just what needs to be changed in the Constitution.

Abe also openly challenges the view that the role of a constitution is to limit state power to protect people’s rights and freedom. During a Diet debate in 2014, Abe said such a way of thinking belongs to the days when monarchies held absolute power — and that a modern-day constitution should instead define the nation’s form, ideals and future. An LDP draft revision released in 2012 says it’s an obligation of the people to respect the Constitution, whereas Article 99 of the current Constitution states that public officials including ministers of state, Diet members and judges, along with the Emperor, “have obligations to respect and uphold the Constitution.” Such thinking on the part of Abe and the LDP should be kept in mind as the issue unfolds in the Diet.

Abe plays down the significance of the two-thirds majority gained by the pro-amendment forces as a result of the Upper House election, saying that this past election was not about changing the Constitution. He says he does not think the LDP draft will be adopted as it is since the LDP alone remains far short of a two-thirds majority. Still, this situation is obviously what he has long been waiting for. After enacting a law setting procedures for holding a referendum on constitutional amendments during his earlier short-lived stint in office, Abe advocated revising Article 96 of the Constitution right after he returned to the government’s helm in late 2012 — so as to lower the two-thirds threshold for the Diet to initiate an amendment, only to withdraw the proposal in the face of widespread opposition, even from within his ruling alliance. Now with the post-election gains of pro-amendment forces behind him, Abe is urging the opposition Democratic Party — which campaigned against constitutional revision under Abe’s watch but has members who do not oppose revision — to join the discussions for revising the Constitution.

The prime minister says what specifically should be amended in the Constitution should be left to Diet discussions. It’s clear that he has his mind set on eventually revising the war-renouncing Article 9. Abe changed the government’s long-standing interpretation of Article 9 to lift the self-imposed ban on Japan engaging in collective self-defense — to defend an ally under attack even if Japan itself is not being attacked — in a Cabinet decision in 2014 and last year enacted the security legislation that implements a decision to significantly expand the scope of Self-Defense Forces’ overseas missions. The controversial decision still permits Japan to engage in collective self-defense only when the survival of the nation itself is threatened by the enemy attack on its ally, and Abe said any further expansion of Japan’s international military roles will require revising the Constitution.

Still, Abe and other leaders of the ruling coalition deny that Article 9 will be on the agenda of amendment in the near future. The prime minister keeps saying that public discussions have not deepened enough to change the sensitive provision. Deputy LDP chief Masahiko Komura charged Democratic Party leader Katsuya Okada with “demagogy” when he said during the election campaign that Abe would aim to revise Article 9 once the parties in favor of an amendment take a two-thirds majority in the Upper House. The LDP knows that its coalition ally Komeito and other pro-amendment forces are not on the same page for amending Article 9, and is concerned that seeking to change it would still alienate a large proportion of voters.

Instead, the LDP is reportedly eyeing an amendment that could possibly gain consensus among parties, and likely win popular approval, such as giving the prime minister emergency powers in the event of a major disaster or an attack — to test the waters before aiming for amendments on more divisive issues, including Article 9. That is the wrong way to revise the Constitution, which should be amended only when and where there is a clear and compelling need for change. The proposed discussions in the Diet must focus on what the parties and lawmakers think needs to be amended in the Constitution, how and for what purposes. They should not initiate an amendment for the sheer sake of setting a precedent.