Commentary / Japan

Much at stake in this election

by Jiro Yamaguchi

The official campaign for the July 10 Upper House election has begun. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to make the continuation of his economic policies a central issue in the race. The opposition parties, on the other hand, are seeking voters’ support for their efforts to prevent revision of the Constitution.

If the ruling coalition and other forces rallying behind the Abe administration win more than two-thirds of the Upper House seats, they will clear the requirement needed to initiate a constitutional amendment — a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Diet — raising the prospect of the Constitution being revised, as Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party have eagerly sought.

An election is an act by the people to give power to the majority party. The majority party would be accused of unethical behavior if it breaks its campaign promises. But voters can only punish such a party by depriving it of a legislative majority in the next election. After returning to power in 2012, the Abe administration experienced two national elections — the 2013 Upper House campaign and the 2014 Lower House race.

There are huge discrepancies between what it promised in each and what it carried out afterward. The Abe administration rammed the state secrets law through the Diet in late 2013, changed the government’s interpretation of the Constitution in a Cabinet decision in 2014 to lift the ban on Japan engaging in collective self-defense and last year enacted the security legislation that implements the Cabinet decision.

The LDP did not touch on these issues at all during the election campaigns. Once a party wins a majority, what it will do after the election is left to its own discretion.

If the ruling coalition wins the Upper House race this time, the Abe administration will likely insist that his bid for revising the Constitution has been endorsed by the public and embark on efforts for a constitutional amendment.

He has in fact been openly saying since the beginning of the year that he would like to change the Constitution, especially the second section of the war-renouncing Article 9 — which says that “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained” and that “the right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized”— and that he wishes to secure a two-thirds Upper House majority for that goal.

He became more muted on the issue as the July election drew near, but in a recent debate with leaders of other parties, he expressed his desire to begin studying specific amendments to the text of the Constitution.

If indeed the Constitution is to be revised on the basis of the draft amendment released by the LDP in 2012, that will mean that Japan will experiment with something that has been quite rare in world history — a regression from a constitutional democracy to an authoritarian regime. Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first prime minister and who drafted the prewar Meiji Constitution, remarked that a constitution is meant to restrict the power of the ruler and protect the rights of the people.

As for moral teachings that people were supposed to follow, he prepared a different document called the Imperial Rescript on Education. The Meiji Constitution was separated from the ethical and moral rules for the people. The LDP’s draft amendment, however, ventures into the realm of ethics and morals — for example, preaching the importance of family members helping each other and respect for traditions.

Furthermore, it imposes an obligation on the part of the people to uphold the Constitution. In short, it can constitute a violation of the Constitution if family members fight each other or people destroy traditions. The LDP’s draft would introduce a constitution unparalleled in the civilized world, as it gives the state the power to interfere with individuals’ way of thinking. It is even more pre-modern than the Meiji Constitution and can only be labeled as authoritarian.

What constitutes the foundations of democratic politics is the integrity of politicians. If those in power opportunistically repeat their lies, the people’s trust in government will be lost. There is no politician as remote from the idea of integrity as Abe.

As host of the Group of Seven summit last month, he warned that the global economy faced a risk equivalent to what was prevalent before the 2008 Lehman shock. As the campaign began for the Upper House election, he started out by saying the economy is in good shape.

He also insisted that the aftermath of the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was “under control,” even though in fact the power company is struggling to stop the outflow of radiation-contaminated groundwater. When his lies and inconsistencies are exposed, Abe never feels ashamed and instead pushes straw man arguments or attacks his critics to escape criticism.

Are we going to let such a person drive the effort to change the basic principles of our political system? If voters do not wish to give the Abe administration a carte blanche, they must express their intention in this election. Japan’s constitutional democracy is facing its most serious crisis ever.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University in Tokyo.