It is no secret that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party are aiming to change what has defined postwar Japan — the pacifist Constitution.
Abe may use the LDP’s widely projected victory in Sunday’s general election as a justification to pursue his long-held goal in the next four years until 2018.
The prospect of Abe getting a firmer grip on power, however, has already alarmed legal experts who see no need for amending the charter and undermining Japan’s pacifist credo.
In the two years since Abe returned to power in December 2012, the government eased its rules on arms exports in April and then reinterpreted the Constitution in July to enable the exercise of the right to collective self-defense, or coming to the aid of allies under armed attack.
A controversial secrecy law also took effect to protect state secrets by toughening the penalties for leakers, amid concern about limiting public access to information.
Some experts say such landmark changes would not have been possible without the emergence of security threats in the region, most notably from China and North Korea. But opinion polls indicate the public remains divided over Japan’s drastic reworking of security and defense policies.
“Constitutional reform has been a fundamental goal of the LDP since the party’s establishment,” Abe said during a recent debate among ruling and opposition party leaders. “Unfortunately, I don’t see the building of momentum among the people for amending the Constitution, so our party will create it nationwide.”
During campaigning for the House of Representatives election, Abe, who once called for a departure from the postwar regime, has largely stayed away from raising the issue of amending the U.S.-drafted Constitution. He touched briefly on his Cabinet’s decision on collective self-defense, which he said was necessary to “protect the lives of the Japanese people.”
Tokyo had long interpreted the Constitution as banning the exercise of collective self-defense, as it would go beyond “the minimum” use of force allowed to defend Japan under the supreme law.
Opposition parties and critics have lashed out at his perceived attempts during campaigning to avoid contentious issues for fear of eroding public support, and make the election a referendum solely on whether he should stay the course or not on his “Abenomics” policy package after putting off until April 2017 a second scheduled consumption tax hike to 10 percent from the current 8 percent.
Their biggest question is left unanswered: why did he not call an election when the Cabinet approved reinterpreting the Constitution?
“What strikes me most is the fact that the Abe administration has been making light of the Constitution. Even compared with past LDP governments, it’s totally different,” said Miho Aoi, a professor of constitutional law at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. “He will definitely try to change the Constitution in the next four years by changing some articles first before Article 9.”
Various media polls have projected the LDP will win more than 300 out of the 475 seats contested in the race, up from 295 it held before the Lower House was dissolved Nov. 21. A gain of more than 317 seats would mean the LDP, by itself, can clear the minimum requirement of two-thirds approval to initiate a constitutional amendment in the lower chamber.
However, there are still more hurdles for the Constitution to be amended for the first time since it was promulgated in 1946, as approval by a two-thirds majority in the House of Councilors is also required before a national referendum.
Abe has gradually set the stage for future constitutional reform, lowering the minimum voting age to 18 from the current 20 in the revised national referendum law, even as critics point to a lack of substantive debate on the future shape of Japan after the supreme law is amended.
Japan’s defense and security policies have long been bound by the pacifist Constitution, with war-renouncing Article 9 forming the backbone. The country’s arms embargo was seen as a symbol of Japan as a pacifist nation.
As Japan adopted new principles on the transfer of defense equipment and technology in April, both supporters and opponents are anxious to see how Tokyo will strike a balance between maintaining its pacifist image and forging closer security ties with other countries, as China increases its maritime assertiveness in the region.
“One challenge would be for Japanese companies to jointly produce (defense) equipment with foreign counterparts,” said Narushige Michishita, professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, as the domestic defense industry has largely been isolated from the world and its equipment has not been tested in battlefields.
In addition to the goal of the constitutional amendment, Abe faces a host of challenges after the election. He needs to persuade a wary public, especially as national debate will likely focus on how to give teeth to the Cabinet decision on collective self-defense, and to respond swiftly to “gray zone” incidents that stop short of military attacks on Japan. The Self-Defense Forces cannot be dispatched in such low intensity situations.
“Back in 2006 (when Abe was in power), most Japanese did not buy the idea that Japan should take leadership abroad. But now, that has changed because many Japanese have started to feel they cannot stand still in the face of threats, including those from an assertive China,” Michishita said.
“That being said, the first priority would be to think about how to defend Japan, rather than other countries in collective self-defense,” he added.
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