Abe’s pitch to amend Article 9

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken a step forward in the push for revising the Constitution by giving a specific time frame to his campaign — that he hopes to have an amendment take effect in 2020. He also singled out the war-renouncing Article 9 as a priority target for amendment, proposing an additional provision to clarify the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces.

Abe’s remarks, made in a video message played at a May 3 event organized by proponents of amending the nation’s supreme code, which has never been revised since it was introduced 70 years ago, may reflect his frustration with the slow progress in Diet discussions for an amendment even though his ruling coalition, along with its pro-amendment allies, secured for the first time last year the two-thirds majority in both Diet chambers required to initiate an amendment for approval in a national referendum. Abe, who apparently views amending the postwar Constitution as a key component of his once-avowed push for a “departure from Japan’s postwar regime,” earlier said he wants to see the Constitution revised while he is in office — which now seems possible through 2021.

However, the time frame that Abe specified for an amendment has no relevance to the question of whether and how the Constitution should be revised. Abe said that 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games, should be a major turning point for Japan to be reborn with a view to its future — just like the last Olympics that Japan hosted in 1964 helped transform the nation into an advanced country — and that he “strongly hopes” an amended Constitution will be implemented the same year. That is hardly a convincing rationale for trying to change the Constitution within that time frame.

Nevertheless, Abe has clearly ramped up pressure on his own Liberal Democratic Party to accelerate the effort to make a draft amendment and urged other parties to expedite discussions in the Diet for revising the Constitution. Pressed by the opposition in the Diet this week about his May 3 remarks, Abe insisted he was making the statement in his capacity as LDP president and refused to clarify his position on the issue as prime minister. Still, he emphasized that the priority for a constitutional amendment should be on revising Article 9 — in a clear departure from his earlier statements that specifics of an amendment should be discussed at the Diet commissions on the Constitution. It also marks a shift from the LDP’s apparent policy of starting a constitutional amendment on issues where a broad political and public consensus can be expected — such as giving the government emergency powers in a national crisis — before tackling more divisive issues such as Article 9.

For both proponents and opponents of amending the Constitution, Article 9 is the No. 1 issue — and where popular opinion is sharply divided. That Abe highlighted Article 9 as the priority for amendment may represent a more honest approach to the Constitution than testing the waters by proposing revisions that would be more easily acceptable to the public.

It is questionable, however, whether the proposal Abe made on Article 9 is urgently needed. The prime minister suggested that the current text of Article 9 — that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” and that in order to accomplish that aim, “land, sea and air forces as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized” — should be kept intact, but a new provision be added to define the status of the Self-Defense Forces. Abe says that “70 to 80 percent of constitutional scholars” say the existence of the SDF is unconstitutional and that “it is the responsibility of our generation to change that situation” — to eliminate any room for doubt about constitutionality of the SDF. However, the government itself has for decades maintained that Article 9 does not deny the nation the right to defend itself against enemy attacks, and that therefore the SDF is constitutional — a position that Abe himself reiterated this week.

There will be questions as to whether it is logical for an amended Article 9 to say Japan will not maintain “land, sea and air forces as well as other war potential” and yet define the SDF’s status and roles — and how that will be defined. A draft amendment compiled by the LDP in 2012 sought to resolve this question by eliminating the latter part of Article 9 — disavowal of the possession of war potentials — and stipulating that renunciation of war and use of force as means of settling international disputes does not prevent the nation from exercising its right of self defense (which, the LDP says, includes collective self-defense) and that the nation possesses the “national defense force.”

Abe has yet to clarify whether his proposal will replace the LDP’s own 2012 draft. He must answer this and other questions before setting a timetable in his quest to amend the Constitution.