IN THE 1950s Nobusuke Kishi, then Japan’s prime minister, tried to change the constitution that America had imposed on the country in the aftermath of the second world war. He failed. Now his grandson, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s current prime minister, is trying to do the same before he leaves office by the autumn of 2021.
Mr Abe’s personal history is not the only reason he is so set on this. For his vocal nationalistic base, it is a passionately held cause. And as one of Japan’s longest-serving prime ministers (the longest, if he remains in power until mid-November) he thinks he has the political clout to do it.
There are good reasons to try—despite China’s mutterings. (Its state news-agency once said that doing so would be like “releasing the shackles of the nation’s legally tethered military.”) The constitution is out of step with reality. Article 9 commits Japan to pacifism and to abjuring the maintenance of armed forces—which the existence of the country’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF) clearly breaches. This is the most controversial of four areas that Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) addressed in recent proposals, even though the recommendation to recognise the existence of the SDF (rather than, say, allow Japan to wage war) is a watered-down version of what many in the LDP would like. The other three areas are upper-house electoral districts, the right to free education and emergency powers for the cabinet.
If the Japanese want to change their constitution, there is no reason why they shouldn’t. America’s has been altered 27 times since its promulgation in 1788. But Japanese people are proud of their pacifism and keen to stay out of other countries’ affairs. A poll in July by NHK, the national broadcaster, found 29% of people supported any revision compared to 32% opposed to it (the rest were undecided or failed to respond). The numbers diverge when the question focuses on Article 9: an Asahi poll found 33% favourable to amending it and 59% against.
The opposition is resistant, too. It has talked about the need to revise parts to improve governance, such as the prime minister’s right to dissolve the lower house, or to explicitly add new ideas such as a citizen’s “right to know”. But no major party bar the LDP unreservedly backs changing Article 9. Even Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner, suggests debate is needed first.
That makes it hard to see how Mr Abe is to get this done. Changing the constitution requires two-thirds of both the upper and lower houses of the Diet, followed by a majority in a referendum. And Mr Abe lost his coalition’s two-thirds majority in the upper house in elections last month.
The political calendar is tight, with the change of emperor this year and the Olympics in 2020, and the geopolitical environment is not propitious. America’s calls for allies to help prevent further seizures of ships in the Strait of Hormuz are providing the Japanese with a concrete example of the sorts of conflicts into which their country could be dragged should Article 9 be changed. “The numbers don’t align, voter interest doesn’t align, and the situation in the Middle East doesn’t help,” says Yuki Tatsumi of the Stimson Centre, a think-tank in Washington.
Mr Abe is moderating his approach. He may shift the emphasis from Article 9 to rights and governance issues that appeal to the opposition, reckons Ms Tatsumi. Yuichiro Tamaki, the head of the Democratic Party for the People, the second-biggest opposition group, agrees that there needs to be a debate. Speaking after the elections, Mr Abe said he hoped for “active discussions”, and emphasised that “constitutional revision is not up to the government, but the Diet”.
He is pragmatic, but he wants a legacy. Efforts to resolve diplomatic problems left over from the war, such as with Russia, have stalled. The economy, which he pledged to revive, is spluttering. Changing the constitution is a challenge—but no tougher than the others he faces. ■