Japan PM Kishida risks political fight with vow to take up Abe's legacy

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivers a speech at his official residence in Tokyo on July 14, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Three days after Mr Shinzo Abe's murder, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida vowed to honour his legacy by taking up a cause that had eluded the late former premier: Revising the country's pacifist constitution.

Minutes later, Mr Kishida was explaining how hard that might be.

Successive leaders, including former prime minister Mr Abe, have failed to overcome the legal and political hurdles required to amend the founding document and legitimise the existence of Japan's military.

Any change to the document, which was drafted by the United States during its postwar occupation, is likely years away, even though Mr Kishida's coalition won enough seats on Sunday (July 10) to start the process.

Mr Abe, 67, was fatally shot at close range on July 8 while making a campaign speech, an attack that robbed the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of its most prominent advocate for changing the constitution.

His death renewed attention to other Abe policy priorities, such as maintaining an ultra-easy monetary policy, strengthening national defence and restarting nuclear plants idled after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

That, plus Mr Kishida’s strong election showing, presents him with a three-year window to pursue his own agenda of making capitalism fairer and greener. It also gives him time, if he so chooses, to gradually ween the country off of some of his predecessor’s “Abenomics” policies. 

Changing the constitution would likely be more fraught. While proponents argue an amendment would assert Japan’s independence and shore up its security, the idea has long been opposed at home and abroad by those concerned about Japan’s imperial expansion in run-up to and during World War II.

"I'm pessimistic about the chances for constitutional reform," said Dr Brad Glosserman, deputy director of the Centre for Rule-making Strategies at Tama University.

"It's one thing to be able to do that when Abe's in the wings pushing for that agenda, but he's gone now and they've lost that motivating force."

Revising the document requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament to approve a proposal that must then pass a national referendum.

Mr Kishida also noted a consensus must first be forged among lawmakers, who have broad disagreements over how exactly to change the document and its pacifist Article 9.

"It's not just two-thirds approving of the idea of revision - two-thirds must agree to the actual content," Mr Kishida told reporters after the election.

The premier said he would aim to get a proposal made as soon as possible and encourage debate in autumn.

That effort has been buoyed not only by the outpouring of grief for Mr Abe, but concern over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Some 58 per cent of respondents told a Yomiuri newspaper poll this week that they had positive expectations for a debate over changing the constitution.

"He's in a good position to actually go ahead with this," said Dr Narushige Michishita, a professor focusing on security at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said of Mr Kishida.

"He is regarded as liberal, so even if he says, 'Let's revise the constitution', people will not say Japan is becoming more militaristic."

Still, by the time a proposal comes together, public interest in the revisions may have waned.

Respondents to the Yomiuri poll ranked constitutional revisions last - far behind the economy, employment and inflation - among a choice of 10 issues that Mr Kishida should prioritise.

Adding wording to Article 9 to make explicit the legality of Japan's Self-Defence Forces - whose existence is currently seen by many scholars as unconstitutional - would be popular with LDP supporters.

The country maintains almost 250,000 troops, hundreds of fighter jets and dozens of warships, although their activities are constrained by law.

Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force soldiers take part in a military demonstration in Kisarazu, Japan, on June 16, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

However, it would risk alienating the party's Buddhist-backed junior coalition partner, Komeito. Most Komeito lawamkers want to keep Article 9 unchanged, a survey by the Mainichi newspaper found.

Revising it could also draw protests from China, where there are already concerns about Mr Kishida's plans for a dramatic upgrade of the military with a commensurate increase in spending.

Another LDP proposal - giving the Cabinet additional powers in the event of an emergency - could be even more controversial.

Mr Abe’s death could offer Mr Kishida support in advancing some of his own policies, such as seeking faster restarts for nuclear facilities. On Thursday, he said he asked for as many as nine nuclear reactors to be online before a winter power crunch. 

Dealing with inflation, trying to stabilise Japan’s energy supply and coping with a Covid-19 surge, are all high on Mr Kishida’s agenda for the coming months.

The constitution comes lower on the list, and the premier must in any case keep the matter at arm’s length, since any proposal must come from parliament, rather than the government.

Yet, keeping up talk about revision could be a useful way of enticing Mr Abe’s right-wing backers to rally behind a leader long seen as dovish, Dr Michishita said.

Mr Kishida may eventually seek to push a proposal through towards the end of his premiership as a way of leaving a legacy, he added.

“Everyone talks about changing the constitution, but when you look at the content, they’re all talking about different things,” said Dr Tomoaki Iwai, professor-emeritus at Nihon University. “It’s going to be tough.”

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