Since the beginning of his second stint as Japan’s prime minister in 2012, Shinzo Abe has left no doubt as to his commitment to revising Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Article 9 of the Constitution renounces war as a “sovereign right” of Japan, as well as bars the maintenance of “land, sea, and air forces” by Japan. The Constitution, enacted in 1947 after Japan’s defeat in World War II and during the American occupation, has never been formally revised. Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have poured much of their political energy into the campaign for revision, but time is now running out for Abe to successfully realize his vision for a militarily-liberated Japan.
Article 9 is a recurring controversy in Japanese politics. Abe and the historically prominent LDP have justified their position on revision by pointing to the need to clearly legalize the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and allegedly to better prepare Japan to face regional security realities, such as those posed by China and North Korea. However, other political parties in Japan argue that changing Article 9 at all would subvert core democratic principles and constitute a troubling return to past militarism. In 2014, Abe’s government passed a resolution that bypassed the procedure for constitutional amendments to reinterpret Article 9. the reinterpretation asserted Japan’s right to self-defense (as well as collective self-defense, or fighting with allies abroad). That move sparked condemnation from neighboring states and was viewed as illegitimate by Japanese critics for disregarding institutional norms.
On the one hand, Abe’s claim to legitimize the JSDF appears valid. The JSDF, formally established in 1954 with American encouragement, grew out of concerns that Cold War tensions could threaten Japan’s security. Technically, the JSDF is in direct contradiction of the spirit of Article 9. While the JSDF’s operations extend beyond the pure safeguarding of national security, it is a military entity at its core. Japan is among the world’s most proliferant military spenders, and a 2015 Credit Suisse report ranked the JSDF as the fourth-strongest military behind the United States, Russia, and China. Legitimizing the JSDF within the context of Article 9 would make logical sense and little practical difference. Even so, polls indicate that changing Article 9 is still nationally unpopular. The JSDF itself has a positive reputation in Japan as a disaster relief force; to many, additional clarification is unnecessary.
The LDP recently called on Japan’s National Diet to consider a proposed amendment that would formally recognize the JSDF. Yet even a basic clarification warrants caution. Professor Craig Martin of Washburn University School of Law warns that such a minor change could, in fact, be a “Trojan horse” designed to execute the LDP’s broader goals—like expanding the JSDF’s role and eliminating Article 9’s prohibition on the use of force. Acceptance of a basic amendment legitimizing the JSDF could solidify Abe’s controversial reinterpretation in 2014 as precedent, which would in turn allow the LDP to claim that the Japanese public supports its cause for Article 9 revision. The stakes are high for any political move, no matter the simplicity.
Significant bureaucratic barriers have prevented the LDP from revising Article 9 thus far. Strong democracies tend to protect their constitutions with high amendment thresholds, and Japan is no exception. A successful amendment, per Article 96, would first have to carry two-thirds majority support in the Diet’s two houses, and, additionally, carry majority support in a national referendum. Given that the Japanese Constitution has never been amended, such a development would be truly unprecedented. On top of that, the LDP rules through a coalition, and one of its allied parties, Komeito, wields disproportionate leverage over the LDP’s agenda due to mutual agreements under Japan’s mixed electoral system. Komeito’s base support is highly supportive of pacifism, a reality that further raises the degree of difficulty of Abe’s ambitions for revision.
Abe has hoped to officially revise Article 9 in 2020, but Komeito has yet to sign onto his revision plans. Further, Abe’s recent cozying up to President Donald Trump has also somewhat backfired: Trump’s trade war with China and grumblings over U.S.-Japan trade threaten Japan’s economy, depriving Abe of a source of domestic political clout to push for revision. His government will also be forced to expend political capital in preparation for the 2020 Olympics, an event that hardly jives with the culmination of an immensely controversial (domestically and internationally) political directive. Even if a national referendum is held, it seems unlikely that Abe has done enough to convince the Japanese public to back revision.
Perhaps the fatal flaw for Article 9 revision, then, is time. Abe has dedicated much of his political career to advancing the revision of Article 9, but the debate extends decades past his own tenure. For all his efforts, more work—probably much more—needs to be done to overcome institutional challenges and convince the Japanese public that revision is both necessary and urgent. It is also possible that the nation Japan has become since World War II simply considers a revision to Article 9 unpalatable and that no amount of politicking may change that. In any case, time is slowly running out for Abe—who is especially passionate about this issue, even within the LDP—to accomplish his goal before he leaves office in the fall of 2021.
The conversation around Article 9 is almost as old as the Constitution itself. Abe’s grandfather, Nobosuke Kishi, tried and failed to repeal Article 9 during the 1950s when he was prime minister, in the immediate aftermath of war, occupation, and suffering, both inflicted and endured. In all likelihood, the Article 9 question will outlast Abe’s leadership of the LDP, just as it did for Kishi before.
The image featured with this article is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. The original was taken by the Government of Japan and can be found here.