OSAKA – Now that he has announced his latest stimulus package, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces a dilemma: Will he now put his energies into the more difficult task of nursing the economy back to full health, including treating long-term cancers eating at society? Or will he perform a bait and switch again to claim that his Diet majority gives him the authority to change the Constitution?
Abe’s appointment of the strongly nationalist Tomomi Inada to the key and sensitive post of defense minister can hardly be reassuring either to Japan’s neighbors or to the majority of Japanese who don’t want to change the country’s long-revered constitution. A small test will be whether Inada visits Yasukuni Shrine in the next week to honor the country’s war dead, as has been her wont.
But her appointment and political gossip that she is being lined up to succeed Abe when his term expires in 2018 — unless he changes the rules to be able to continue in office — suggest that Abe and friends are hell-bent on amending the Constitution, in their eyes a humiliating imposition by the victorious U.S. forces.
Abe had specifically asserted that the election was about economics, not about the Constitution, On a television program before the election, Liberal Democratic Party Vice President Masahiko Komura declared that “there is zero possibility” that Abe would revise the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, even if he won a two-thirds majority.
Put on the spot immediately after the results came in, Abe declared, “The nation has given me a powerful mandate to further accelerate Abenomics. I am grateful for this.” But in the cold light of victory the next day, he changed his tune, claiming that it was his “duty” as leader of the LDP to revise the Constitution, which he regards as being forced on defeated Japan by the WWII victors. “We have always set a goal of revising the Constitution,” he said. “That is my duty.”
His appointment of Inada, known for her visits to Yasukuni and vigorous challenges to claims of Japanese wrongdoing during the Pacific War, suggests that Abe has his eye on what he considers his main mission, constitutional change.
Giving priority to changing the Constitution would be a major mistake, ultimately for Japan.
Winning big with a relatively low 54 percent turnout on an economic platform does not give Abe a mandate for constitutional change. This would be dishonest and wrong, especially since all opinion polls show that most Japanese do not want to change the Constitution. A recent poll by public broadcaster NHK showed that only 26 percent agree with constitutional reform, and only 11 percent believe that it is a priority.
Also worrying, Abe has not come clean about how he plans to revise the Constitution, whether he would merely abolish Article 9, thus allowing Japan to have a fully-fledged military, or whether he wants to change the whole document along the lines of an LDP draft.
The full LDP document is both far-reaching and flawed. Besides creating military forces, it would change the relationship between the citizen and the state, giving more powers to the government, diminishing the rights of citizens, as well as imposing new duties on them. It would put the family, not the individual, as the fundamental unit of society.
Such a document requires a full airing and debate clause by clause, which has not taken place even within the LDP. It would be dangerous to try to propose such a constitution without having the full commitment of the Japanese people.
Abe and his colleagues have hesitated because opinion polls have consistently reported that the people — sensibly — don’t see the urgency in changing the Constitution.
Even to get into serious debate about changing the Constitution would consume political energies, alarm Japan’s neighbors, trigger military tension and spending in the region, and divert attention from sorting out serious economic problems of Japan’s aging and arthritic economy and society.
It is a measure of Abe’s stubbornness that he has three times promised the electorate that the economy and Abenomics were his priority, only to get diverted twice by his mission to change the Constitution. We can only hope that it will not be third time unlucky.
Japan’s economy badly needs attention, which the latest stimulus does not address. The headline number for the stimulus was ¥28 trillion, but the fillip of new money in the current year will be ¥5 trillion or less. Throwing money at the problem won’t work because Japan needs initiative and innovative ideas. The government can lay the foundations, but needs to encourage bright people with new ideas to transform the economy. It needs to bring the energy and talents of women and elderly people into the economy, and needs to discuss how greater immigration could energize a rapidly graying country set in its ways.
It is unlikely these economic revolutionaries will emerge if Abe is preoccupied in creating a Big Brother state.
There is a bigger issue that needs consideration. Abe’s constitutional vision is impaired. Inspired by his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, a wartime minister and postwar prime minister, he wants to make Japan “normal” again; but that normality is the normal of the imperial 1930s. No wonder that Japan’s neighbors, including South Korea and China, are sounding alarm bells.
In the 21st century, Japan has to find a new normal that recognizes the importance of a world where Japan is a middling power, even in Asia. It is a difficult task, not least because Beijing is becoming more nationalist and more assertive, using facts and excuses that for 200 years foreign powers have bullied China. There is no future in trying to slug it out with China, either in claims about history or, less still, in military posturing.
There is also the awkward question whether Japan, with its aging and declining population and cash-strapped budget, can afford to be more aggressive militarily. If Donald Trump becomes president of the U.S., he may follow the advice of right-wing loonies to withdraw U.S. forces from Asia — which would send a terrible destabilizing signal and encourage an Asian arms race, which could involve nuclear proliferation.
In the month when the atrocities of war, including slaughter in China, fire-bombings and finally the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are commemorated, Japan should be leading the way in the difficult quest for a peaceful world.
Someone should have the guts to remind Abe that the policies of his revered grandfather and friends led to widespread misery, death, atomic destruction and defeat. A true Japanese nationalist and patriot would be searching for a better future, not looking back to an inglorious past.
There is a saving grace. Even if he can summon the two-thirds majority in both houses to initiate constitutional change, Abe still needs approval from the people in a referendum. The lessons of Brexit should teach him that it is not a good idea to mess with popular fears.
Kevin Rafferty is a longtime journalist and commentator on Asia
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