CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – “I am very encouraged that you are promoting the national discussions on revising Japan’s Constitution,” said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his video message to a more than 10,000-strong audience at a national rally in Tokyo on Nov. 10, 2015.
The rally to boost the movement to revise the Constitution was officially organized by a citizen group named the National Society to Create a Constitution for a Beautiful Japan. However, the Japan Conference is deeply embedded in the foundation of the society and virtually led the huge rally. The idea for the establishment of the society was originally formulated by Tadae Takubo, president of the Japan Conference, and many officers of the society overlap those of the Japan Conference.
The Japan Conference is often reported to be the largest right-wing organization in Japan. It was established in 1997 and describes itself as a “national movement association which has nationwide grassroots networks.” According to the Asahi Shimbun, it has 38,000 fee-paying members, 47 prefectural headquarters, and 240 local branches with 1,700 local assembly members. It also has a nonpartisan parliamentary league to support itself, named the Japan Conference Diet Members. At 281 members, the league represents 39 percent of the total members in the Diet. Abe and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso are special advisers in the league. Small wonder the Japan Conference is considered to be one of the most influential political lobbies in Japan.
In essence, the ideology of Japanese right-wingers is totally different from their American analogue. Japanese right-wingers see less importance in discussing matters such as government spending and personal liberty. Generally speaking, their highest priorities are the worship of Japan’s Imperial family, revising the Constitution, and establishing autonomous defense systems. These goals are rooted in a certain stream of historical interpretation.
The Japan Conference’s prospectus strongly attacks the historical viewpoint rooted in the Tokyo Tribunal, which ruled that Japan’s wars during from 1931 to 1945 constituted Japanese aggression. “The epidemic acceptance of the historical viewpoint of the Tokyo Trial has caused Japan’s humiliating apology diplomacy and has brought about the younger generation’s loss of pride and self-confidence in the country,” the Japan Conference claims. The most distinctive characteristics of Japan’s right-wing are its nationalism and revisionism, which are also visible in the Japan Conference’s ideology. In that sense, the Japan Conference is a classic Japanese right-wing organization.
However, there is one very significant distinction between the Japan Conference and other Japanese right-wingers: its grassroots strength to mobilize the public. Unlike other right-wing groups, the Japan Conference will not carry out noisy political propaganda activity on the street. To disseminate its political ideology among the public, it puts the highest priority on huge national rallies, collecting signatures and passing local assembly resolutions across the country. In that sense, it can be said that the Japan Conference represents a new approach to a civil movement based on traditional right-wing values.
Revising the Constitution, which is the most contentious issue of the upcoming Upper House election in July, is also the most significant long-held goal of the Japan Conference. The original draft of the current Constitution was created under the initiative of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) shortly after World War II. As Article 9 of the Constitution both renounces the sovereign right to war and stipulates that Japan will never maintain land, sea and air forces, it has been called the “Pacifist Constitution.”
However, the Japan Conference would never admit the legitimacy of the postwar Constitution because it regards the Constitution as having been forcibly imposed by the SCAP. Yuzo Kabashima, the secretary-general, sometimes dubbed “commander in chief,” of the Japan Conference, pointedly attacked the postwar Constitution in comparison with the prewar Constitution in an interview on a conservative online program, and emphasized the righteousness of revising the Constitution:
“The Constitution of the Great Empire of Japan has the preamble to explicitly show respect to the ancestors of the Imperial family and the Japanese deceased. However, the preamble of the current Constitution never respects Japan’s traditions, the Emperor or the ancestors of the Imperial family. The Japanese people have become the non-Japanese people [due to the current Constitution]. … Therefore, revising the Constitution is the pillar [of our movement].”
Revising the Constitution is also a cherished goal of Abe, who took over the unaccomplished ambition of Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, his grandfather. What sets apart the Japan Conference’s movement to revise the Constitution is that its campaigns are closely connected with Abe’s strategy.
Abe has often stressed the importance of deepening the national discussion on revising the Constitution. Revising the Constitution requires not only the approval of two-thirds of the Diet members in both the Upper and Lower Houses, but also a majority of affirmative votes in a national referendum. Therefore, to achieve this goal, it is absolutely necessary for Abe to draw much of the public’s attention to revising the Constitution, more than ever before.
The National Society to Create a Constitution for a Beautiful Japan, one of the affiliates of the Japan Conference, has been lobbying local assemblies across the country to pass resolutions, and has been collecting 10 million signatures for the purpose of revising the Constitution. In this way, the national movement led by the Japan Conference is actively backing Abe’s strategy.
Under the Abe administration, everything is apparently going well for the Japan Conference. However, the reality is more complicated. It seems that the gap between the pragmatic actions of Abe and the ideology of the Japan Conference has been widening.
For instance, after Abe’s statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII last August, the Japan Conference released a statement that highly praised Abe’s speech. However, not all of the members were satisfied with Abe’s statement. Abe used contentious key words such as “aggression” in his speech, leaving some Japan Conference members disappointed that Abe eventually endorsed the 1995 Murayama Statement, which defined Japan’s wars as Japanese aggression, just as the Tokyo Tribunal did. Moreover, Abe reached an agreement with South Korea in December to resolve the issue of “comfort women,” those who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels before and during WWII. After the settlement, Abe’s Facebook page was filled with furious comments denouncing him.
Despite that, Abe apparently has controlled the political situation even after the comfort women agreement. According to Tsunehira Furuya, a political analyst, it is hard to imagine that the conservative hardliners would change their position to become “anti-Abe.” As Furuya noted in an article published after the agreement was announced: “The conservative hardliners, who do not have their own national party to represent their political ideology, have no choice but to support Prime Minister Abe, even though he adopts pragmatism and keeps his distance from their idealistic conservative world. Consequently, it is almost inconceivable that Abe would be abandoned by them.”
Furuya’s argument is convincing. The Abe administration still maintains high poll numbers even after the great controversy surrounding last year’s enactment of security laws to loosen restrictions on the military actions of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. Right-wing conservatives have no alternative but to depend on Abe in order to achieve their long-cherished goal of revising the Constitution. As Takubo, president of the Japan Conference, said in a speech about that issue last November, “Even though Mr. Abe wavers somewhat, we should take the initiative to lead [the movement]. If not, Japan is not going to be able to survive. … When we win the Upper House election, the true Shinzo Abe could appear.”
If the ruling Liberal Democratic Party wins a landslide victory in the Upper House election, there is no doubt that the Japan Conference and Abe would keep their strong solidarity. However, if the LDP loses the election, the Japan Conference would face difficulties. The worst scenario for the Japan Conference would be for the group to break up into several factions, such as Abe’s followers versus idealists, and thereby lose its strength and influence on politics. Therefore, the Japan Conference has no choice but to focus on backing the Abe administration in order to win the next election, while persuading its members that Abe would absolutely achieve its goal of constitutional revision after the election.
Before the Upper House election in July, whose result might effect its long-held goal, the Japan Conference is in a very ambivalent situation.
Koji Sonoda is currently an associate of the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at Harvard University, and works for The Asahi Shimbun as a political reporter. © 2016, The Diplomat; distributed by Tribune Content Agency