Japan’s conservative-leaning Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has dominated Japanese politics since the Second World War, has tried for years to change the country’s constitutional commitment to demilitarization. Under current Prime Minster Shinzo Abe this effort appeared likely to succeed, but today change again looks unlikely. To understand why, we need to grasp how this “constitutional cleavage” is a core element of Japanese party competition.1 Here I provide the background to this issue and set Abe’s recent problems within this framework.
How Japan got, and kept, its present constitution
The present Japanese constitution was enacted in November 1946 by the Japanese Diet, with significant influence from the occupying Allied powers. For some conservative politicians, this has always meant that the constitution was “imposed.”
This shared view was a motive in the 1955 merger of two conservative parties, the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party, to form the Liberal Democratic Party. The new party hoped to win the two-thirds majority of both houses required to initiate a constitutional amendment. Also in 1955, just prior to the LDP merger, the Leftist Socialist Party and the Rightist Socialist Party merged to form the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ) – in large part to oppose the constitutional amendment.
The LDP has been in power since 1955 with the exception of two periods in opposition (for less than a year in 1993–94, and from 2009 to 2012). In spite of its overall success the LDP has never held a two-thirds majority in both houses.2 As a result, the constitutional status quo has been maintained, with the support of some influential LDP politicians who are also reluctant to support reform.
Momentum around constitutional reform grew in 2005 when then–Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi proposed a draft constitutional amendment. Koizumi was succeeded a year later by Shinzo Abe, the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, Prime Minister of Japan and President of the LDP from 1957 to 1960. However, Abe resigned in 2007 after being defeated in upper house elections that had emphasized the need for constitutional reform.
Although Abe’s goal of revising the constitution was not fulfilled during his first tenure as Prime Minister, he succeeded in establishing the legal framework for any amendments, passing the Act on Procedures for Amendment of the Constitution in April 2007. The constitution stipulates in article 96 that an amendment has to be initiated by two thirds of the members of both houses and supported by a majority of the people, but no legal framework for conducting the requisite national referendum had previously existed. Under the act, Japanese nationals above the age of 18 could vote in a constitutional referendum, despite the voting age at the time being 20 (reduced to 18 in 2015).
The LDP’s proposed amendment
Shinzo Abe returned as leader of the LDP in September 2012. Several months before the leadership election, the LDP set out a new proposal to amend the 1946 constitution, the main element of which was revision of the article that renounces Japan’s right to wage war.3 As it stands, article 9 states,
- Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
- 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 right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
In 2005 the LDP had proposed that the second clause be removed. In 2012, it proposed to replace the second clause with new language: “The provisions in the preceding paragraph shall not prevent the state from exercising the right to self-defence.” Abe’s current version, released in 2017,4 is more moderate: it proposes that article 9 be kept intact and another clause, or a new article, be added acknowledging the existence of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF) or “jiei-tai.”5
Abe has encouraged national discussion of the proposals and made clear his wish to have a new constitution ready for 2020, when Tokyo hosts the summer Olympics. His strategy is to convince the public that revision carries little risk, stressing that the current article 9 will be kept intact. In addition, he now refrains from using any term associated with “military force” (gun), such as the National Defence Military (“kokubou-gun”), used in the 2012 proposal, or the Self-Defence Military (“jiei-gun”), from 2005. Maintaining the status quo on article 9 and simply acknowledging the SDF, he feels, will reduce the risk of failing to have the proposal endorsed in any future referendum.
The committee in charge of constitutional reform within the LDP, the Constitutional Reform Promotion Headquarters, accelerated internal debates on the text and, after intense discussion, the committee’s proposal was supported at the party congress held on March 25, 2018. According to media reports, a new article 9-2 will recognize the right to self-defence, acknowledge the existence of the Self-Defence Forces (“jiei-tai”) and establish the prime minister as commander-in-chief.6 The Self-Defence Forces will operate subject to approval by the Diet alongside other controls as required. These clauses were mainly drawn from the 2005 and 2012 proposals, with some tweaks added to clarify nuances related to the term military force.
Post-Abe is Abe – but not necessarily an amendment
Although the committee’s decisions are in line with the Prime Minister’s views, some more radical members of the LDP have demanded that revisions to article 9 should go further and the second clause should be removed altogether. This view is held by, among others, Shigeru Ishiba, a former defence minister, who competed against Abe for the leadership in 2012, receiving the most votes in the election’s first round, and is still seen as Abe’s main challenger. A hardliner compared to Abe, Ishiba argues that adding a new article or clause further complicates the issue. Ishiba is expected to run for president of the LDP in the next leadership election, likely facing Fumio Kishida, Abe’s foreign minister from 2012 to 2017.
The party election comes this September, and Ishiba and Kishida may both be disappointed. The LDP president traditionally serves a three-year term, with party rules allowing a single second three-year term. Abe’s mandate was renewed once in 2015, so he would have been expected to hand over his job to a successor this year (as Koizumi handed over to Abe in 2006 after five and a half years of service). Instead, the LDP changed its rules in 2017 to allow a further three-year extension, for a maximum of nine years. With then-high approval ratings, party officials had a strong incentive to pave the way for Abe’s prolonged tenure. The mood of the party was summed up by the Chair of the LDP’s General Council, who said “Post-Abe is Abe.”
Until recently, Abe’s continued leadership looked like a fait accompli. However, a simmering scandal, in which Abe and his wife are accused of helping a private right-wing elementary school receive an exceptional discount in purchasing state-owned land, returned to the headlines when it was found that falsified ministerial documents were submitted to the Diet. Approval for the government sank below 40 per cent in March and, as a result, the leadership looks likely to be contested. Since his and his cabinet’s high and stable approval rate has been Abe’s primary political resource, its depletion will have consequences on how the leadership race evolves.
Figure 1 shows the change in support for amending the constitution over the past decade as tracked in three Japanese newspapers. Those in favour of constitutional reform remained a majority in most years until 2013. From 2013 to 2014, support for pro-reform opinions decreased a remarkable 10 per cent, possibly as a result of the 2014 Specially Designated Secrets Act, which aroused public concerns over their privacy and the possible dangers of a more aggressive state. There was an even larger increase – 10 to 16 per cent – in anti-reform opinions in 2014. Anti-reformers are now at the same level as pro-reformers, despite a 5 per cent increase in pro-reform support in 2017, likely caused by North Korean missile tests in the months before the poll date. Overall, despite Abe’s efforts, today’s political climate is not favourable for the LDP to initiate and win a constitutional referendum.
Despite the downward trend in support for Abe’s government and for constitutional reform, a combination of parties favouring reform of article 9 holds a two-thirds majority in both houses.7 Abe gambled on a snap election in October 2017. The gamble paid off as the LDP won more than 60 per cent of the seats in the lower house and, with its junior coalition partner, Komeito (the Clean Government Party), it secured more than the two thirds needed to trigger a constitutional referendum in that house. Komeito, more reluctant to change article 9 than the LDP, was kept on board by Abe’s proposal to keep article 9 intact and to add a new article or clause.8
Figure 2 illustrates seat distribution in the lower house after the 2017 election, in comparison with the results of the 2014 election. Aside from the two coalition parties, two other parties are in favour of reform. One is the Nippon Ishin (Japan Restoration Party), with its regionalist (the original party was born in Osaka), neoliberal and nationalist orientation. In 2014 the party contested as the Japan Innovation Party (prior to a split and renaming), and it supported reform then too. A newcomer to the group of pro-reform parties in 2017 was the Party of Hope, led by the current Governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, an ex-LDP member who was the nation’s first female defence minister in the first Abe cabinet in 2007. These four parties combined hold more than 80 per cent of the seats in the lower house and more than 67 per cent in the upper house, just enough to initiate a constitutional amendment.
Abe could now initiate the amendment process in cooperation with other supportive parties, but this may not happen given the school scandals,9 the government’s approval rating and the LDP’s leadership contest.
The constitutional cleavage
A week before the 2017 campaign began, the main opposition party, the Democratic Party (DP), split into three.10 A right-wing group set up a new party, the Party of Hope, led by Yuriko Koike. Initially DP members were expected to rally under this banner but Koike bluntly stated that DP members opposed to reforming article 9 in keeping with her hawkish security policies would be “excluded” from the new party. This led left-liberal DP lawmakers who opposed constitutional reform to set up another new party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, while most upper house MPs, who were not facing an election, remained in the original DP.11
This spectacular split sheds light on an important aspect of Japanese politics. The divide between the pro– and anti–constitutional reform camp was already key to the “1955 system,” in which the LDP, the governing party, aimed to initiate constitutional amendments, while the opposition parties aimed to block them. With the demise of the 1955 system,12 the split in the Democratic Party is a reminder that constitutional issues are an underlying driver of Japanese politics.
Why has this constitutional divide defined Japanese politics for such a long time? To understand this we need to consider Japan’s historical path. Japan was one of only two Asian countries – the other being Thailand – to escape Western colonization (including partial colonization). Japan’s survival as an independent state allowed it to pursue the path of imperialist state-building in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This created space for imperialists and for those Japanese who believed their country was racially superior to its neighbours. Finally, the Second World War had a major impact in Asian countries.
Figure 3 illustrates how these three factors – external influence, state-building and war – determined the path of each Asian country. The impact of the West resulted in the partial or complete colonization of most Asian countries (Type V–VIII). These countries experienced state-building through a Western model influenced by the United Kingdom, the United States, France or the Netherlands (Type V–VI), or an Eastern model via Russia and/or the USSR (Type VII–VIII).
While Thailand remained as a kingdom (Type III–IV), Japan pursued modernization (Type I–II) following the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Japan’s state-building and imperial period ended with defeat in the Second World War. This led to occupation by U.S.-led Allied forces and had a defining impact on Japan, leading to its subsequent embrace of civilian rule (Type II).
This gave rise to an odd twist in Japanese politics: conservatives do not want to “conserve” their own constitution. At the same time, they cannot embrace the imperial period, which led to much suffering. Japanese conservatives struggle to accept civilian control and the renunciation of war while simultaneously celebrating the country’s history, including its martial aspects. The fact that Japan remained independent and developed into a modern state in its “glorious” history makes it even more difficult for conservatives to accept the constitutional status quo. This dichotomy between a pacifist and civilian country and an imperialist and military one remains the underlying constitutional divide between those who want to reform article 9 and those who don’t.13
No matter how ambitious Abe may be in his desire to change the Japanese constitution, the past and how it is evaluated by new generations of Japanese, facing challenges not imagined in 1945, will play a key role in this debate over the years to come.