Ever since his re-election as Japan’s prime minister in December 2012, Shinzo Abe has been hinting at revising the country’s pacifist constitution. Thus, his announcement that he would try to amend the country’s pacifist constitution by 2020 (when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics) did not actually take many observers by surprise. He made this formal announcement on May 3 which is celebrated as Constitution Day (Kenpō Kinenbi) in Japan every year. Abe thinks that the time is now ripe for this move, as the ruling LDP (Liberal Democratic Party)-Komeito coalition have a majority in both the lower and the upper houses of the Japanese Parliament.
In September 2015, the Japanese Parliament had passed laws which for the first time in the post-WWII era allowed the Japanese Self-Defense Force to use deadly force even in cases when Japan is not directly attacked.
What does it mean for the region?
Any change to the Japanese constitution is sure to have regional ramifications.
Changes in the Japanese constitution do not necessarily mean that Japan would revert to militarism.
Firstly, in the immediate neighborhood, China has a territorial dispute with Japan, and criticized the Japanese prime minister in December 2013 when he made a visit to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo. Any change to the Japanese constitution is sure to lead to a lot of brouhaha in Beijing. In South Korea, Moon Jae-in has recently taken over as president, and any changes in the Japanese constitution could result in domestic turmoil in South Korea too, which may put the newly-elected president in a spot of bother with regards to relations with Japan. It is worth noting here that Japan and South Korea have been putting up a united front along with the U.S. when it comes to facing the threat from the recalcitrant North.
Secondly, it is worth bearing in mind that the U.S. under the Trump administration has actually been in favor of Japan taking a more active role in the security realm, and paying a greater monetary contribution for the security cover which the U.S. provides. So, Washington may actually welcome this move from the Japanese prime minister.
Thirdly, a big casualty of this move could well be Japan’s fledgling relations with Russia. Prime Minister Abe has presided over a period of considerable improvement in Japan-Russia relations. This outreach began with his visit to the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics in February 2014. President Putin has also visited Japan and the two sides have begun talks over the disputed islands, which are known as the Southern Kuriles in Russia and as the Northern Territories in Japan.
Fourthly, under Prime Minister Abe, Japan has been trying to play a bigger role in regional affairs. Any possible change(s) in the constitution could negatively impact Japanese diplomatic outreach to ASEAN countries. Recently, the Belt and Road forum in Beijing on May 14-15 saw 7 heads of state from the ASEAN countries in attendance.
What’s in store at home?
There are likely to be many domestic challenges surrounding this issue for Prime Minister Abe. Any possible revision will require a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament, along with a majority in a nation-wide referendum. Abe came to power on the plank of reviving the Japanese economy. After assuming the office, he embarked on so-called “Abenomics,” which aimed to improve Japan’s economic standing. However, if voters think that he has not been able to improve the condition of the economy, it could have negative consequences on his party’s performance in future elections.
However, working in favor for Abe is that the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has been in the doldrums for a while now. Even though there is a significant section of the Japanese population who favor this peace constitution, the DPJ simply does not have the numerical strength to take on the Abe-led LDP-Komeito coalition.
A make-or-break gamble?
During his first term in office, Prime Minister Abe was in power for only one year and resigned because of health reasons. This time he has already had a much longer stint (since December 2012) and could well end up being the longest serving Japanese prime minister ever as the ruling LDP has made changes to the party constitution allowing Abe to seek reelection for a third consecutive term as LDP president.
Changes in the Japanese constitution do not necessarily mean that Japan would revert to militarism. Abe is only aiming to remove the ambiguity in the status of the Japanese SDF as Article 9 of Japanese constitution clearly states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” The second part of Article 9 goes on to say that “in order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”
The recent missile tests by North Korea have been worrying the Japanese government and this may be one of the reasons which is making Abe push for changes now. In early March of this year, North Korea fired four missiles, three of which landed in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
No other Japanese prime minister has tinkered with the constitution since it was first enacted in 1947. Abe will have to stake his political future and that of his party in order to pursue his objective. Whether he actually succeeds in doing so is something that only time will tell.