WILL ABE’S LATEST PROPOSAL LEAD TO BREAKTHROUGH IN DEBATE ON CONSTITUTIONAL REVISION?
On Constitution Day May 3, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attempted to break the long-standing deadlock on the national debate over revision of the current constitution, expressing a strong desire to: 1) implement a new constitution by 2020; 2) stipulate the hither-to-unspecified status of the Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF), while retaining Clauses 1 and 2 of Article 9; and, 3) guarantee free education from preschool to college under a new constitution, as excellent human resources constitute the foundation of the nation.
It was a daring proposal on Abe’s part that has dramatically changed the political conversation concerning this crucial issue. Abe chose to tackle the two clauses in Article 9 directly, bypassing other clauses covering, for example, exceptional extensions of lawmakers’ terms in a state of emergency, such as a natural disaster; or the apportionment of electoral districts in the Diet.
Clause 1 of Article 9 guarantees pacifism. Meanwhile, Clause 2 stipulates: “(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.” It denies the state the right of belligerency, in effect calling for complete disarmament.
Those supporting constitutional revision have no objection to Clause 1. They even believe the strong Japanese aspiration for peace the constitution spells out should proactively be promoted.
But Clause 2 is problematical for them. Any reasonable person would naturally question how the presence of JSDF as a military force can be justified under the terms of the current constitution. Despite this, the top opposition Democratic Party (DP) immediately objected to Abe’s proposal. Abe also rubbed some members of his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) the wrong way. As far as Abe is concerned, however, these reactions must have been within his expectations—something he would rather welcome.
In an address on May 1 before a group of supra-party lawmakers favoring constitutional change, Abe explicitly stated why he dared to throw his controversial proposal into the political arena at this point:
“The time is ripe. We will definitely take a historical step forward for constitutional reform in this milestone year. What is required of us now is to draft a specific proposal for reform…The LDP has no intention to submit to the Constitutional Councils of both houses the current draft for a constitutional revision (compiled in 2012) as it is. No matter how brilliant our draft may be, unless we manage to win a two-thirds majority in both chambers, it will be all talk and no action and all our efforts will go down the drain.”
During the 15-minute address, Abe frequently departed from a prepared statement to stress the above points, warning persistently that politicians favoring constitutional reform must commit themselves to clinching two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Diet in order to implement the projected reform by 2020.
Abe’s Historic Statement of 2015
The prime minister is pointing the sharp edge of his sword, as it were, at both those who wish to keep the current constitution intact as well as those pressing for its revision. Abe is asking: “Are you only giving lip service—trying to say fine-sounding things without bothering to look hard at the reality of the political situation in our country?”
The present scheme of things reminds one of the summer of 2015, when Abe made a historic statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. At the time, the conservative camp in Japan was split over his perception of history. Some conservatives strongly criticized Abe’s statement as reflecting views common on the US and Europe, failing to fully reflect Japan’s position.
On the other hand, other conservatives maintained that what Abe stated then should not be viewed as reflecting the comprehensive findings of Japanese historians. It was, after all, a “political statement” Abe thought appropriate to issue at the time, they asserted. China and South Korea were forging ahead with national campaigns to bash and defame Japan over the history of the war, with the international community also often holding a negative view of the Japanese version of events. These quarters welcomed the Abe statement on the grounds that the key question for Japan at the time was how to best explain its position and rally international public opinion to its side.
True, there were some parts in Abe’s statement that I felt failed to amply reflect Japan’s position and assertions, historically speaking. But I took the same stand as the latter group and supported what Abe had to say, taking into consideration the political implications of his statement and the generally positive appraisal given by the international community. A similar situation can be observed as concerns Abe’s recent proposal for changes to Article 9 of the constitution.
Abe pointed out that, while it is important for lawmakers to say the right thing, it is equally important to produce results. He repeated this assertion on May 9 during deliberations in the lower house of the Diet. When Renho Murata, head of the DP, complained that Abe had made clear his readiness to revise the constitution in an interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun but had refused to answer questions by DP members in a budget committee hearing. Abe maintained that he viewed the committee as a venue for him to state his opinions as the chief executive of the government, not as the president of the ruling party in whose capacity he had granted the Yomiuri an interview.
Renho did not take kindly to his explanation. Their subsequent interchange centered around issues far removed from Japan’s security or other essential issues directly related to the revision of the constitution.
Of course, the DP is entitled to criticize the prime minister anytime it desires. However, the party itself has been unable to even agree on a draft of a revised constitution. What is the party going to do about that? Queried by Abe, Renho was at a loss how to answer.
The DP is not alone to blame. In light of their general reluctance to “produce specific results,” what Abe is asking our lawmakers is: 1) Why have most of them been idling away their time in the ten years since the Constitutional Council was formed in each of the chambers of the Diet?; 2) Why haven’t they been endeavoring to transform Japan through constitutional revision amid the sea change of the international situation?; 3) How do they expect to protect our lands, seas, and the lives of our people in the coming years?
Qualifications for Abe’s Successor
Abe desires to have language specifying the role of the JSDF written into Article 9, moving Japan another step closer towards a normal and fully independent democracy. To accomplish that, he needs to win over the LDP’s junior coalition ally Komeito Party, which has long proposed a step it calls “kaken” (adding some articles while leaving all of the current articles untouched). Abe also needs to gain the cooperation of the minority opposition Japan Restoration Party, which demands that free education from preschool to college be spelled out in the constitution. Further, the prime minister is eager to take in pro-revision members of the DP, who can certainly expect no cohesive leadership on this critical issue from Renho or party secretary-general Yoshihiko Noda.
Abe hopes to create a framework that no small number of DP lawmakers can support. Among those potential supporters would be Goshi Hosono, the party’s former acting president who has published a private plan for constitutional amendment; Seiji Maehara and Hirofumi Ryu who both ask that specifics on the JSDF’s role be written into Article 9; and Akihisa Nagashima, a key conservative expelled from the DP in April. In order to avert a backlash of public opinion and gather together as many pro-revision DP lawmakers as possible, Abe is not insisting, at least for now, on the deletion of the pivotal Clause 2 of Article 9.
It is clear that such thoughts led to the political judgment behind Abe’s latest proposal for a revision of the constitution. One cannot but appreciate his realistic judgment.
If we let the opportunity slip away under the Abe administration now, constitutional revision will again become a remote aspiration. Our lawmakers should refrain from “saying only fine-sounding things” and taking no action. The debate about a revision of our constitution has gained momentum afresh, responding to Abe’s proposal. What the lawmakers must do now is actively discuss what kind of draft of Article 9 is necessary to establish consistency between Clause 2 and a new clause—Clause 3—defining the JSDF.
If the first hurdle against constitutional revision is cleared, every effort should then be made to pave the way for a deletion of Clause 2. He who is capable of assuming such responsibility should succeed Abe as the next leader of Japan.
Shigeru Ishiba, a self-professed heavyweight contender for prime minister who was once defense minister under Abe, among other things, criticized him for ignoring the results of long-standing discussions on the subject. “I can’t agree with making a hasty move to revise the constitution without a deep awareness of the law,” Ishiba declared. His criticism gave an impression of getting bogged down in procedural semantics, and it is unlikely he will become the next leader of Japan so long as he is confined to so narrow a viewpoint.
It is necessary for our lawmakers to comprehend the harsh reality of international politics and be committed to taking a long-term view of our nation in endeavoring to implement a revision of the Japanese constitution. If one takes into consideration the stern international reality surrounding Japan and ponders how Japan should behave as a leading nation, there is absolutely no question about the need to delete Clause 2. All Japanese, not only our lawmakers, have the responsibility to continue to fight until we realize a new constitution that fully meets the needs of our country in today’s world.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 754 in the May 25, 2017 issue of The Weekly Shincho)