CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s upcoming three-year term as Liberal Democratic Party president, if he is re-elected to the position as expected, will be an opportune time for him to realize his long-held and controversial desire to revise Article 9, the war-renouncing clause of the Constitution. Following his all-but-assured victory in the LDP presidential election on Thursday, Abe will be on course to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and will likely be best positioned politically to pursue constitutional revision by his stated timeline of 2020.
You might call it Abe’s make-or-break moment on Article 9. During his third term, he will need to capitalize on his remaining political capital to see through revising the Constitution, which has never been amended since its promulgation in 1947.
Specifically, Abe wants to resolve the debate among constitutional scholars in Japan about the legality of the Self-Defense Forces. For years, many have argued that the SDF is unconstitutional, asserting that it violates Article 9. To address this, Abe wants to insert into the Constitution a reference to the SDF to clarify its legal status in the supreme law while also keeping in place the first two clauses of Article 9 that renounce the right to wage war and ban the maintenance of a standing military.
Some critics argue that Abe’s proposal to revise Article 9 to make the legality of Japan’s military unequivocal while still keeping the war-renouncing clause is merely symbolic. Abe’s supporters claim that the objective is to remove uncertainty in a gray area of Japanese law, confirming that Japan may legally engage in individual self-defense.
They also assert that the amendment would complement 2015 security legislation that allowed the SDF to engage in limited forms of collective self-defense.
Revising Japan’s Constitution, which was written during the U.S.-led Occupation, and recapturing the nature of the country that existed before the Occupation — most notably during the Meiji Era — has been an aspiration of the prime minister for years. Abe thinks the U.S. Occupation imposed non-Japanese principles on his country, and he has stated a desire for Japan to stand proud again, escaping the “postwar regime.”
These sentiments parallel the LDP’s continued aim of constitutional revision that date back to the late 1950s when Abe’s grandfather, Nobosuke Kishi, was prime minister.
Abe believes that his administration needs to deliver on his party’s promise, cementing his legacy, regardless of the limited scope of the proposed revision.
Abe also cites present-day threats to Japan’s national security as further justifications for amending Article 9, most notably North Korea’s menacing behavior and the rise of China.
Yet some confidants of the prime minister are advising that his third term focus on accomplishing other long-desired policy goals, namely vanquishing deflation, structural reform of the economy and putting Japan back on a footing of economic growth.
Complicating matters, the busy upcoming political calendar affords little time for Abe and his party to pursue the contentious campaign necessary for amending Article 9. As part of this, Japan’s new emperor will assume the throne in 2019 and Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics the following year.
Amid competition for Abe’s focus, time and resources going forward, he will need to prioritize and dedicate sufficient bandwidth to reform the Constitution.
It appears that the prime minister has support within his party to revise Article 9. According to a Sept. 8 Kyodo News survey, more than half the LDP’s rank-and-file members support Abe’s proposal to amend the Constitution. However, to achieve the required two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Diet for proposing constitutional change for public referendum, the LDP will need support from its coalition partner, Komeito, as well as from minority opposition parties. Komeito, principally supported by the pacifist lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, is known to be wary of Abe’s plans for changing Article 9.
If the Article 9 revision measure clears the Diet, it will need to be approved by a bare majority of voters in a public referendum in order to be codified.
The public has long been divided on the issue, with the most recent polls indicating that 46 percent are opposed with 44 percent in favor. Among Japanese with a clear-cut opinion, most do not want to see the Constitution changed, believing that its built-in legal constraints have served Japan well in the postwar era, allowing for its peaceful and prosperous revival.
These figures show the prime minister and his allies would be well-served to start — without delay — a concerted public relations effort to make headway with voters.
Unquestionably, Abe has his work cut out for him toward securing support among partners in the Diet and the electorate for amending Article 9. Yet, as he starts his third term as LDP chief, he will likely be at the height of his remaining power and influence. Abe will need to seize on this timing and make his case on constitutional revision while addressing both the concerns and aspirations of the broader Japanese public.
Now is Abe’s best shot on Article 9 revision. To achieve this long-held policy goal of him and his party, he should strike while the iron’s hot.
Ted Gover is an adjunct instructor of political science at Central Texas College-USMC Camp Pendleton and the director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University.