National / Politics | ANALYSIS

Abe's push to amend Japan's Constitution faces uncertain future after Upper House vote

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s long-held goal of amending Japan’s Constitution by 2020 appeared in tatters Monday, after the ruling coalition and pro-revision parties failed to capture the two-thirds supermajority needed to move the revision forward in the Upper House election held the previous day.

With the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, along with pro-revision Nippon Ishin no Kai, securing only 157 of the 164-seat two-thirds supermajority needed to set in motion a national referendum on the issue, Abe had little choice but to extend an olive branch Monday in the hope of finding allies in other parties.

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Abe began with criticism of the opposition — saying that over the past year, constitutional revision was only discussed for two hours in the Lower House and three minutes in the Upper House. But he then called on all parties to submit their own proposals.

“In the end, constitutional revision will be decided by the people in a national referendum. The LDP has put forward proposals for constitutional revision and we want other parties to do the same. The two-thirds barrier needed (for Diet approval) is a very high hurdle, but let’s find a solution to overcome it,” he said.

The LDP is proposing four areas where either new language would be added to the Constitution or the current language would be expanded. The party wants revisions that include mentioning the Self-Defense Forces by name, to achieve what it considers to be formalizing the status of the de facto military.

It also wants to broaden the government’s response to natural disasters, to reform the Diet member system — to take into account regional concerns about the over-representation of Tokyo as they face depopulation problems — and to strengthen public education for those from lower-income families.

The most controversial aspect is the revision of Article 9 and the specific inclusion of the SDF. Abe faces a daunting task in drumming up adequate support to get this amendment in particular through the Diet by his self-declared deadline of 2020. The first and most important hurdle is winning over coalition partner Komeito, especially as their base of supporters in the Buddhist lay organization Soka Gakkai remain either cool toward, or downright opposed to, revising the war-renouncing article.

But as major opposition leaders pointed out in media interviews early Monday morning, it wasn’t just the SDF or Article 9 they had concerns about.

The Democratic Party for the People, with its 21 Upper House seats, has been identified by Abe and the media as a possible ally, as many of its members aren’t strongly opposed to revision.

But DPP head Yuichiro Tamaki said in a television interview that there were problems members of his party wish to discuss regarding how to spell out the right of self-defense and how to frame military missions within the Constitution.

“A debate over just writing down the name of an organization like the Self-Defense Forces is a pretty shabby debate,” Tamaki said.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition party, is strongly opposed to Abe’s proposals for revising Article 9. Interviewed on the same program as Tamaki, CDP head Yukio Edano said the pro-revisionists failure to gain a two-thirds majority showed that Abe had miscalculated the extent to which the Japanese public saw constitutional revision as a crucial campaign issue.

“Most people were concerned about social security and economic issues,” he said.

Key goals for the CDP include limiting the rights of a prime minister to dissolve the Lower House. The opposition parties also want to discuss putting restrictions on paid advertising in the event of a national referendum on constitutional revision. Abe says he is willing to talk about the latter issue in particular, but Edano and Tamaki claim their proposals have been rebuffed by the ruling parties.

Yet even if Abe and the major opposition parties agreed to formally debate different proposals for constitutional revision — a tall order at present — the political schedule makes it all but impossible for a new constitution to be enacted by 2020.

“Whatever happens in the Diet, they’ll be running up against preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and also for the arrival of (Chinese president) Xi Jinping in the spring,” said Michael Cucek, adjunct professor of political science at Temple University Japan.

There are also internal frictions within the LDP that could further undermine Abe’s efforts to get the Constitution amended.

“Currently, Abe is so strong and influential within the LDP that we don’t see any party members openly criticizing his ideas on constitutional revision. However, I think many LDP members are uncomfortable about his constitutional revision ideas,” said Yu Uchiyama, a modern Japanese politics expert at the University of Tokyo.

That could spell trouble for Abe’s party allies like LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who suggested Sunday evening that Abe could run for a fourth term in September 2021, although the prime minister said he was not thinking about a fourth time.

If a week is a long time in politics, two years is a lifetime. While the party does not have someone else at the moment to take over from Abe, Sunday’s Upper House result was clearly a blow to his central mission.

And if the coming weeks and months bring an economic downturn, due to the October consumption tax hike to 10 percent, and if relations with the United States become strained over either a lack of progress on a bilateral trade deal or American pressure to dispatch SDF troops to the Strait of Hormuz, the obstacles to achieving constitutional reform, already high, are likely to take on a stratospheric scale.

Abe and the government may find they have more immediate difficult and pressing issues to deal with, rather than trying to form a bipartisan consensus on constitutional revision.