In his campaign for the upcoming Upper House elections, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pussyfooting around his plans to revise the Constitution. He is keeping his cards close to his chest because polls have shown that voters oppose constitutional change. Instead, Abe is calling on voters to keep the faith with Abenomics, despite widespread consensus that it has been a dismal flop and has failed to revive the Japanese economy or improve household welfare.
The cat is well and truly out of the bag regarding this failure — on June 27, NHK announced that only 6 percent of voters polled think Abenomics is working well while only 26 percent favor constitutional revisions, and only 11 percent think it a priority. Even two-thirds of newbie voters aged 18-19 know Abenomics is a no-hoper according to a Kyodo poll taken in June. It gets worse: 70 percent of women voters in this cohort don’t expect much from Abenomics, taking the shine off his “womenomics” grandstanding. The good news for Abe is that these young voters are only marginally more interested in the elections than other voters, with just 56 percent expressing an intention to vote. So much for an enthusiastic response from the newly enfranchised!
Apparently Abe’s campaign strategy is based on trying to keep the voter-participation rate low, and on that score he has a good track record, driving it down to just over 50 percent in the last election in 2014. The reason he doesn’t want to upset the applecart of apathy is that low turnout gives the Liberal Democratic Party an advantage: His core constituencies turn out to vote and will do so again in large numbers now that they smell blood, in the form of the prospects of a two-thirds majority in both houses and the possibility of constitutional revision. The fact that almost half of all eligible voters don’t vote means that Abe’s LDP has been winning elections with less than 25 percent of the potential vote.
So this explains why Abe is focusing on his discredited Abenomics program, the “three arrows” of radical monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reforms. Who cares that representatives of leading industrial nations trashed it when they visited for the G-7 summit in May? They pointed out that the program really involves only one arrow: massive monetary easing. These leaders and virtually every sentient observer know that Abenomics is sputtering and is focused on monetary policy alone. A June Kyodo poll of all Upper House candidates running in the July 10 elections, including LDP candidates, reveals that 64.7 percent believe that Abenomics has not delivered, having failed to improve the economy. Business leaders are even more downbeat. If the LDP’s own candidates and most voters are skeptical about Abenomics, why run a campaign on it?
The reason is that Abe needs to deflect attention away from the LDP’s plans to revise the Constitution. But those plans are hidden in plain sight and deserve more attention because the more the public knows about them, the more they might realize that thumbing their collective noses at the elections will hand Abe a historic opportunity to achieve his long-standing goal of overturning the postwar order. Voter disinterest is precisely what Abe is praying for so that he can rid the Constitution of pesky Western values such as civil liberties. He seeks to empower the state vis-a-vis citizens and eliminate the war-renouncing Article 9 that he and his supporters see as emasculating Japan, keeping the nation subordinate to the U.S.
Those who want to revise Article 9 are not all ultra-nationalist security hawks eager to make Japan the Great Britain of Asia. Many other pro-revision advocates point out the yawning gap between the apparent prohibitions on maintaining armed forces and the existence of Japan’s well-equipped armed forces — the country now has a larger navy than the U.K. Some argue that this breach discredits the Constitution and that Abe’s reinterpretation, which would allow for Japan to engage in collective self-defense, further subverts it. So, some argue, if Article 9 is essentially already being ignored and the threat of conflict in Asia has become more real, why do a majority of Japanese oppose revision?
Japanese pacifism draws on the trauma of World War II and the deep scars it left on the nation — memories that have been passed down through families, displayed at museums, taught at schools, shown in documentaries and commemorated at annual rites such as those in Okinawa, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Citizens worry that the “Abe Doctrine” will endanger the country, and that beefing up the alliance with the U.S. may lead Japan into a war at Washington’s behest, rather than safeguarding the country’s national security.
Japan is basically a one-party system, and there is little reason to believe that the Diet would act as resolutely as the British Parliament did a few years back in scuttling Prime Minister David Cameron’s plan to provide military support to the U.S. in Syria. Under Abe, the premiership has only grown in power, and his national security council and new secrecy and security legislation have strengthened his hand in a system where checks and balances are already weak. Japanese citizens are wary of entrusting Abe or any leader with too much discretionary power, but it is a fait accompli that they can do little about in elections, given the imbalance of power between the LDP and other parties.
Hence, Article 9 is seen by many to have residual symbolic power, manifesting pacifist sentiments as a collective norm. Across Japan, this idealism is also represented by the multitudes of demonstrators who gathered outside the Diet last summer to denounce Abe’s security legislation. Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs) organized popular protests against the secrecy and security legislation and has been involved in coordinating opposition parties for the Upper House elections. They decry the intensifying crisis in constitutional government and the LDP’s bait-and-switch campaign strategy aimed at bamboozling voters.
If the LDP wins big, Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi), the nation’s largest and most influential right-wing organization, will lobby Abe’s Cabinet to deliver on their shared vision. The consonance of interest between Abe and Japan Conference is clear in that a majority of his Cabinet ministers are members. It has clout in the Diet where 39 percent of all legislators — 281 in total — are members. This will enable it to press ahead with their real goals: constitutional revision, security autonomy and Emperor worship. These are the three arrows that Abe really cares about.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.