Seventy-two years after the enactment of Japan’s pacifist Constitution, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe renewed his pledge Friday to revise the supreme law and emphasized that he still hopes to see an amended Constitution go into effect in 2020.
“I made clear at this very forum, two years ago, that I hoped 2020 would be the year this nation sees a newly revised Constitution come into effect. That hope hasn’t changed for me,” Abe said in a prerecorded video message shown during a forum to discuss constitutional change hosted by a conservative grassroots group aligned with Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi).
The pacifist Constitution has been a topic of debate because its war-renouncing Article 9 bans the country from maintaining any “war potential.”
Abe has argued the article should be revised to formalize the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces, although the government has long maintained the SDF are constitutional despite Article 9 and polls have shown a majority of voters support that interpretation. Pacifist political forces remain opposed to Abe’s ideas, fearing any revision of Article 9 could change the status quo and lead to unrestrained reinterpretation of the article in the future.
Referring during Friday’s forum to a poll that indicated about 90 percent of respondents had a positive impression of the Self-Defense Forces, Abe said: “This level of trust is something the SDF has earned for themselves,” and that “now it is time for us in politics to do our part as well.”
“We must write the role of the Self-Defense Forces into the Constitution to put an end to the debate over its constitutionality,” he added.
Abe proposed such a revision at the same rally in 2017, adding at the time that he hoped to see an amended top law enacted in 2020.
In a video message shown at last year’s forum, however, Abe didn’t mention the 2020 target, in a move that observers said underlined the political difficulty he faced in achieving his long-held ambition.
This year Abe re-emphasized the 2020 goal, but Diet sessions on constitutional matters have remained stalled. Political observers say that whether Abe is able to reboot his drive for constitutional change will depend on the results of the Upper House elections scheduled for July.
The forum is hosted by a conservative group that has promoted a revision of the top law and this year attracted 1,100 people to its main event, held on Constitution Day, according to the organizers.
Among groups supporting the event is Japan Conference, the nation’s largest political group representing conservative, right-wing and nationalist causes.
Abe is known to be a strong advocate of constitutional revision, but his push for change has been brought to a deadlock in recent months with opposition parties resisting reforms and Upper House elections looming in the summer. Discussions at the Commission on the Constitution at the House of Representatives have been on hold since the start of the year when the ordinary Diet session opened.
A bill to revise the national referendum law was tabled for discussion, but following a data scandal that found statistical inaccuracies in employment figures opposition parties have refused to attend discussions at the commission.
Unlike other parliamentary committees, custom dictates that the commission’s discussion on constitutional reforms must be held with consensus among all members about meetings being held, so as to ensure that a majority bloc alone cannot change fundamental political systems purely in their own favor.
The situation was further exacerbated when Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Koichi Hagiuda spoke on an internet broadcast aired in mid-April, saying that with talks of constitutional change stalling and a new imperial era on the horizon it may be necessary to “get a bit rough” about pushing discussions forward. He added that lawmakers had been “very patient” with the lack of commitment from opposition representatives.
A flurry of criticism followed, and Hagiuda eventually apologized for his remarks. Following that apology, a brief meeting was held — the first this year — ahead of the long Golden Week holiday period. Attendees agreed that a meeting requested by the opposition to discuss television commercials for national referendums would be held after Golden Week.
Conservative politicians have claimed that holding commission meetings and discussing constitutional revision will pave the way for a referendum, and that refusing to engage in any discussions at all deprives voters of their right to have a say on the matter.
Constitutional revision itself, however, appears low on the agenda for the public.
In a survey conducted by the daily Asahi Shimbun in April, with multiple answers allowed, the leading issues respondents said they would use as the basis for their choices during this summer’s elections were employment and the economy, at 66 percent, followed by social security, at 65 percent. Constitutional reform ranked low for importance, with only 22 percent saying that they would consider it when voting.
In a separate poll, conducted jointly by Sankei Shimbun and broadcaster FNN in October following Abe’s Cabinet reshuffle, 30 percent of respondents said they hoped the new Cabinet would work on social security issues such as pensions and nursing, and 16 percent said they hoped to see better economic and employment policies implemented. Only 3 percent said the government should be working on constitutional reform.