Shinzo Abe's constitution dream

Shinzo Abe's constitution dream

'When the country is strong, and the risk of war small, when there is no threat of being attacked from without," the Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki once said, "then nationalism ought to diminish accordingly."

A little over a hundred years after Soseki gave his lecture, Japan finds itself in an increasingly challenging geopolitical neighbourhood, with a nationalist prime minister ready to take the country in a new direction.

At issue are a few simple words written into Japan's postwar constitution by the victorious American occupiers in 1947. Article 9 states that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation" and that armed forces "will never be maintained".

According to historian John Dower, Gen Douglas MacArthur conceived of this idea of absolute pacifism and never consulted the Japanese. Seven decades on, Article 9 remarkably remains in the constitution and has even shaped Japan's self-perception as a nation of peace focused not on military capability but on economic achievement.

But the question of whether Article 9 should be amended has never gone away.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has long dreamed of a constitutional amendment. He maintains that experts have questioned whether Japan's Self Defence Forces (SDF) are even constitutional, saying the time has come to write the SDF into the charter. Many in his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) see the American-imposed constitution as a humiliation.

Since World War II, Japan has essentially been a US client state, depending on the American security umbrella for protection. The US has remained the key offshore counterweight to a rising China, with which Japan has not always had friendly relations.

However, the Trump administration's reconsideration of its role in East Asia, including threats to revisit the US-Japan defence alliance, makes a constitutional amendment to normalise Japan's security arrangements sound logical. It is understandable that Mr Abe would pursue the issue.

Yet the hurdles are high. Two-thirds of both the lower and upper houses of parliament would have to approve an amendment, followed by a national referendum. Mr Abe's ruling coalition currently lacks a supermajority in the House of Councillors.

Now, with the upper house election coming up, Mr Abe has one last chance. He has stated that the "upper House election is about seeking a voter response" to the question of constitutional reform, which he wants to carry out next year. But even if the LDP were to achieve a two-thirds majority, Mr Abe is unlikely to succeed.

The debate over the constitution could easily morph into more than just a question of whether the SDF is constitutional. In 2012, the LDP released a proposed draft constitution, which in addition to adding the SDF also enshrined the emperor as head of state. Currently, the emperor is considered a "symbol" without any political power.

The LDP's coalition partner, Komeito, is ambiguous in its stance on charter reform. Its leader has only said that "both the ruling and opposition parties should make efforts to create an environment enabling calm discussions".

Most importantly, the idea of an amendment remains unpopular with the public. Polls consistently show a majority of voters against Abe amending the charter. Indeed, in an undistinguished first term in 2006-07, Mr Abe's vocal focus on the constitution and nationalistic appeals led to plummeting support.

Other polls show that the public simply are not sure. In a poll conducted by the Mainichi newspaper in May, for example, a majority said they were unsure about whether the SDF should be included in the constitution.

Instead of pursuing a constitutional amendment that may damage his own party's popularity, Mr Abe may be better off working on other policies that will increase Japan's security vis-à-vis its neighbours. He has already reinterpreted the constitution to allow for collective self-defence, where Japan can send its armed forces abroad to defend allies. With this in mind, focusing on working with other US allies in the region may be more concretely helpful.

Haruki Murakami, another Japanese novelist, once said: "Most Japanese don't have any sense of direction. We are lost and we don't know which way we should go. But this is a very natural thing, a very healthy thing. It is time for us to think. We can take our time."

On the question of constitutional amendment, Mr Abe will have to realise that if Japan's electorate is not yet where he is. They will, indeed, have to think and take their time while he will have to wait.

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