Japan’s Political Situation vs. the Constitutional Amendment
07 May, 2021  |  Source:Contemporary International Relations  |  Hits:3429

It is widely believed in the international community that revising Japan's pacifist constitution has long been the political goal of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

When Abe returned to power in 2012, Sino-Japanese relations plunged to their lowest point since World War II because of the farce over the purchase of the islands. The Abe administration has made breakthroughs in the field of military security by taking advantage of the "China threat theory", such as abolishing the right to collective self-defense and making substantive amendments to the Constitution. The government then tried to amend the text, paying particular attention to Article 9, the core article of the pacifist constitution. In order to rally and consolidate support for the regime, Abe vigorously promoted "Abenomics". At the same time, the substantial correction led to a sharp rebound in Japanese stocks. For example, lifting the ban on collective self-defense through a cabinet resolution,suspected to be unconstitutional and therefore controversial.

Prime Minister Abe will remain in power for more than six years from 2019 in a political landscape characterized by a strong ruling Liberal Democratic Party and various weak opposition parties. Within the LDP, Mr Abe presides over various factions of the party. With Abe's term as president of his Liberal Democratic Party ending in September 2021, elections for lawmakers in the summer of 2019 are crucial for Abe if he is to complete the constitutional revision process during his term. If pro-reform forces can secure a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament, the process will enter a "countdown" phase, with only a referendum remaining as the final step. However, although the LDP and its ruling coalition New Komeito received far more than half of the re-elected seats and even pro-amendment support to restore Japan's political parties, they are still below the two-thirds threshold needed, which will undoubtedly be a serious obstacle to Abe's amendment. However, Abe has not abandoned this political agenda. Instead, he has speeded up the process of constitutional revision through different means and put forward unprecedented new trends that deserve close attention.

In summary, Prime Minister Abe outlined a three-step process to amend the Constitution. The first step was a procedural change, a concrete procedural step taken by approving the referendum law during his first term in 2007. The second step is substantial revision. After returning to power, Abe continued to push forward the constitutional revision as a "historical mission".

Because the threshold was too high, Abe turned to Article 96 of the constitution, which allowed him to change the threshold, but he was unsuccessful. Subsequently, the strategy was adjusted according to the constitutional interpretation. In 2014, Mr. Abe lifted the ban on collective self-defense through a cabinet resolution, and the following May, he used his majority in the National Assembly to force through a security bill supporting collective self-defense. This fundamentally overturns Japan's exclusive defense policy and its commitment after the war. The move is suspected to be unconstitutional, and has been questioned and opposed, but for Abe, it is an important step towards substantive constitutional revision. The third step is to amend the Constitution in writing. With both actions in mind, Mr Abe set out to use the 2019 elections for the lower house of parliament to achieve the goal of explicitly amending the constitution, undermining the immutability of Japan's post-war constitution.

On the issue of upper house elections, Mr Abe has taken three unusual steps. The first is to preserve the core provisions of the pacifist constitution. Specifically, in order to appease the ruling coalition New Komeito Party, Abe proposed to retain Article 9 (1) and (2), with reservations on the amendment. This silenced the verbal attacks of the opposition and, more importantly, increased public support for the changes, which had enjoyed seven decades of peace after the war. The second way is to include provisions of constitutional amendments. The move was inconsistent with the LDP's "party principles" on constitutional issues, so Mr Abe used party resources to consolidate the amendments into four articles, the so-called "four amendments", which were written into the LDP convention in the recent lower house elections. Among them, the first is the explicit increase of the Self-Defense Forces in the Constitution, which is a key amendment. The second is the so-called state of emergency bill, which gives the government flexibility to respond to a "state of emergency" in the event of a major disaster or large-scale natural disaster in Japan. For example, the bill would give the government the power to extend the term of the House of Representatives. The third is to abolish the system of electing councillors in the "combined districts" in order to solve the problem of unfair election of councillors caused by the size of constituencies. Fourth, we will promote free education from primary school to university. The third, many noted, was the first time a constitutional amendment had been so explicitly and intentionally made a major "point of contention" in a House election, designed to generate maximum public attention.

These three approaches may be implemented through a lack of options or due to strategic considerations. Since the election of members of the 24th National Assembly three years ago, the LDP, New Komeito and the pro-amendment RestorationParty have gained more than two-thirds of the seats in the lower house and the lower house, crossing the legal threshold for the constitutional amendment to be launched in the Diet. However, for various reasons, the constitutional amendment has encountered difficulties over the past three years and has not made substantial progress. Against this background, Abe decided to change strategy and tactics through tactical withdrawal, hoping to achieve the ultimate goal by lowering the stage goal.

The following reasons can well explain why Abe failed to achieve the goal of amending the Constitution in the past three years, even though he had reached the threshold of amending the Constitution in the National Assembly.

First, there is opposition within the ruling coalition. The Komeito Party adheres to pacifism as its ideology and has long had reservations about constitutional change. Natsuo Yamaguchi, a New Komeito delegate, for example, said publicly during lower house elections that the "two-thirds" threshold was meaningless; How is this done

Whether the constitution should be changed has not yet been discussed in depth in the National Assembly, but it would be better to start from scratch. In the lower house, the Komeito Party has 24 seats, while the Restoration Party has 13. The two-thirds threshold cannot be reached without New Komeito's approval. In addition, as a New Komeito is the LDP's coalition partner, and its main role in party politics is to counterbalance the LDP within the regime. New Komeito holds high the banner of justice and fairness, showing a clear difference with the conservative Liberal Democratic Party in ideology and the way it implements its political agenda. New Komeito has worked with the LDP since 2000 to advance its policy goals. However, when Mr Abe returned to power, his promise to revise the pacifist constitution created a major challenge and even a crisis for the New Komeito party. New Komeito's vote in favor of the security bill on lifting the ban on collective self-defense has not only provoked public criticism in Japan, but also provoked a storm of confusion within the party, especially among its supporters. The international community has also questioned the New Komeito vote, saying it goes against the party's ideology of peace. Despite explanations from the New Komeito leadership, the party's ideological and principled inconsistencies have indeed shattered its base. As a result, New Komeito has taken a cautious, conservative approach to constitutional change in writing, which could be a check on Mr Abe's ambitions.

Second, there is no consensus within the LDP. Since its founding, the LDP has made it a party mission to amend the constitution, and the key to it is the deletion of Article 9 (1) and (2), peace clauses that were historically "imposed by foreigners" in the ruins of war. Mr. Abe's proposed amendment, however, does not explicitly put that effort at its core. Senior LDP figures, meanwhile, expressed a different view. Fumio Kishida, who is considered a strong candidate for the post of prime minister if Mr Abe steps down, said he had no intention of revising Article 9 and said that position would remain unchanged. While this position may be electoral rhetoric or factional debate, it is an indisputable fact that there are still significant divisions within the LDP over what to change and how to accomplish them. In fact, no consensus has been reached, which to some extent restricts Abe's efforts to amend the Constitution.

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