The surrender of Japan's peace Constitution

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called on the National Diet to amend Article 9 of the country's Constitution, which renounces war as a means of settling disputes. Drafted by the United States after World War II, the Constitution contains "some parts (that) do not fit into the current period", Mr Abe said. He is particularly concerned about the constitutional provision that prohibits Japan from maintaining "land, sea and air forces", arguing that it seems to be in direct contradiction with the existence of the country's Self-Defence Forces.

At a glance, Mr Abe's proposal seems deeply unpopular. According to one poll, some 50.3 per cent of the Japanese public object to amending Article 9. Only 37.5 per cent of those polled favour such action. But the good news for Mr Abe is that opposition to his efforts, although broad, does not seem to run deep. Voters, it seems, are less concerned about the direction that he is taking the country in than they are about his decision to make the issue a top priority.

Revising the Constitution would provide stronger legal grounding for Mr Abe's controversial defence measures. Introduced last year, the new legislative provisions lift restrictions on deploying Japanese forces overseas and expand the definition of self-defence to include aiding an ally. These moves, too, are unpopular - at least superficially. Some 51 per cent of Japanese voters disapprove of the measures, compared with 30 per cent who support them. And yet only 38 per cent say they would like to see Mr Abe reverse course and repeal the legislation.

To be sure, many in Japan are concerned about the implications of Mr Abe's agenda, feeling that it runs counter to the country's national security and proper international stance. They worry that his defence moves will make it more likely that Japan will be dragged into war, putting an end to its post-war pacifism.

Another avenue of criticism regards worries that Japan's new defence doctrine will worsen its relationships with its neighbours. Indeed, several countries have already expressed concerns. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei stated that Japan's new approach was "out of step with the trend of the times featuring peace, development and cooperation". His counterpart at South Korea's foreign ministry commented that Seoul would "never tolerate" Japan's exercise of the right to collective self-defence on the Korean peninsula "without the (Republic of Korea's) request or consent". And North Korean state media reported that Mr Abe's reforms were intended to "pave the way for invading other countries".

Not all of the opposition to Mr Abe's agenda, however, stems from substantive objections. In some cases, concern focuses on the legitimacy of the process that produced the laws. According to one poll, 67 per cent of respondents disapprove of how the ruling coalition pushed the legislation through the Diet. There is a widespread feeling in Japan that Mr Abe's Cabinet "did not make a sufficient effort" to explain the legislation to the public. By ignoring criticism from the majority of voters, Mr Abe's government allegedly discredited Japan's democratic system.

Voters, it seems, are less concerned about the direction that Mr Abe is taking the country in than they are about his decision to make the issue a top priority. Revising the Constitution would provide stronger legal grounding for his controversial defence measures.

Similarly, some 51 per cent of respondents disapproved of the laws on constitutional grounds, believing them to be in violation of Article 9 of the Constitution, the provision that Mr Abe would like to alter. These voters are less likely to support scrapping the Bills; indeed, some of them might be mollified if Mr Abe is successful in amending the Constitution.

There is also a simple, practical answer that explains why opponents of the laws might not be in favour of efforts to repeal them. Many in Japan would like to avoid a divisive debate that could distract the government's attention away from other priorities.

Japan's economy shrunk more than expected in the final quarter of last year, and its stock market has been in turmoil since the beginning of this year. No matter how unenthusiastic the Japanese might be about Mr Abe's security Bills and his attempts to change the Constitution, they would prefer that the issue be relegated to a back-burner. That way, the government can focus on what voters really care about: turning the economy around and saving the country's social security programmes.

PROJECT SYNDICATE

•The writer is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2016, with the headline 'The surrender of Japan's peace Constitution'. Print Edition | Subscribe