National / Politics

Abe's attacks on local governments yields backlash against his push to revise pacifist Constitution

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been attempting to find more allies in his bid to revise the pacifist Article 9 of the Constitution, but instead has found himself facing a barrage of criticism, which could make his long-held ambition a more difficult task to achieve.

During the annual convention of his Liberal Democratic Party on Sunday, Abe reiterated his mantra calling for constitutional revision to formalize the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces and thereby put an end to the academic debate over its constitutionality.

In delivering the speech, Abe claimed that “more than 60 percent” of the 1,741 local governments across the country “have refused to cooperate in recruiting” new young members for the SDF.

Abe said this is “a sad reality,” and that “we need to change this situation” by revising the Constitution to formalize the SDF’s legal status.

But the prime minister’s allegation was met with an immediate backlash from the media and opposition lawmakers, claiming that the figure cited by Abe is inaccurate.

They also pointed out that no law obliges local governments to abide by the request from the Defense Ministry, which every year urges them to submit a list of the names and addresses of all local residents aged 18 or 22. Using that information, the ministry directly sends such individuals a brochure inviting them to join the SDF.

Local governments “may want to cooperate, but it’s rather difficult because that’s not written in any law,” said Hiranao Honda, an opposition lawmaker of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force.

“Local residents would raise (privacy) issues because it is personal information,” he added.

Only 632, or 36 percent of the total, gave the information to the Defense Ministry in fiscal 2017. Abe’s argument is based on that figure.

But 931 local municipalities — or 53 percent of the total — didn’t provide the information to the ministry but did allow it to browse their resident registration databases and write down the names and addresses of qualifying residents by hand.

If this is seen as “cooperation,” about 90 percent of the municipalities could be seen as having gone along with the ministry’s efforts to recruit young people, opposition lawmakers have argued.

Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya countered that browsing the database and writing down a “vast amount of information by hand” takes great effort and thus the minister does not consider those municipalities to be “cooperating” with the ministry.

Abe also insisted that many activist groups and local assembly members put pressure on municipalities not to cooperate with the Defense Ministry in general. Abe was apparently referring to left-leaning pacifist groups and assembly members.

“You can presume an atmosphere like this” has discouraged municipal governments from fully cooperating with the ministry’s recruitment work, he said.

Many municipalities, however, likely won’t give away copies of their database because the residential registration law only allows the central government to “browse” the database, and there is no law that permits local governments to hand over paper or electronic copies to Tokyo.

Norikazu Takeshi, who oversees thehandling of inquiries at the registration department of the Yokohama Municipal Government, pointed out that the names and addresses of local residents are not supposed to be given to an outside party without any legal basis. He flatly denied that any public debate over the constitutionality of the SDF would’ve had an effect on the city’s decision, as Abe claimed.

“No. This is just a matter of clerical work based on the law,” he told The Japan Times.

Opposition lawmakers argue that if the central government wants a copy of the database of young residents, a revision of relevant laws would be enough and the constitutional revision that Abe argues is needed would be unnecessary.

Even some key members of Abe’s ruling bloc sided with the opposition, saying Abe’s proposal to revise Article 9 has little to do with this database issue.

“We probably don’t need to (revise the Constitution) to deal with this matter,” said Kazuo Kitagawa, the head of the constitutional affairs panel of Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner.

Komeito’s cooperation is considered a must if Abe is to initiate a national referendum on constitutional revision. To initiate a national referendum to revise any article of the Constitution, support of more than two-thirds of lawmakers in both the Upper and Lower Houses is legally required