Japan's Shinzo Abe resumes Constitution quest in bid to burnish legacy

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has raised the issue of amending the pacifist post-war Constitution at almost public speaking opportunity since the new year.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has raised the issue of amending the pacifist post-war Constitution at almost public speaking opportunity since the new year.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces almost insurmountable obstacles to completing his career-long quest to amend Japan's pacifist Constitution. That won't stop him from trying.

The premier opened a new session of Parliament on Monday (Jan 20) with a fresh call to revise the country's United States-imposed post-war Constitution.

Mr Abe has raised the issue at almost public speaking opportunity since the new year, saying he wants to make full use of what he expects will be his final 20 months in office.

"The constitution shows what form the country will take," Mr Abe said. "It’s our responsibility as lawmakers to put forward a proposal for what kind of country we should aim to be in the future," he added in comments that drew hearty applause from lawmakers of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Success would help burnish his legacy after he became the country's longest-serving prime minister in November. Rewriting the Constitution was one of the founding principles of the ruling LDP, which argues the move is needed to give Japan's "self-defence" forces greater legitimacy and secure Tokyo's interests around the globe.

While many in the right-leaning LDP view the Constitution imposed in 1947 as a symbol of Japan's humiliation after World War II, the document has broad political support. Previous talk of amendments, or changing laws to allow Japanese troops to fight abroad, has led to street protests - something Mr Abe may want to avoid as Tokyo prepares to host the Summer Olympics.

Mr Abe's challenge wasn't made any easier by his failure in July to win a two-thirds majority in Parliament's Upper House, something that would've helped him push through any change. He must also overcome a pushback from within his ruling coalition.

"In terms of political priorities, I don't think public interest is necessarily strong," Mr Natsuo Yamaguchi, who leads Mr Abe's Buddhist-backed coalition party, Komeito, told NHK on Jan 12. "We have to look at this calmly and realistically as we move ahead."

Although a change would please Japan's sole military ally, the US, which has been prodding Tokyo to take a more assertive security role, it could complicate Mr Abe's other diplomatic efforts.

The government is preparing for a state visit this spring by President Xi Jinping of China, where suspicion of Japan's military ambitions still runs deep.

South Korea, which has been feuding with Japan over a host of war-related grievances in recent months, has urged its neighbour to "remain within the mold of the pacifist Constitution".

Meanwhile, North Korean state media, in a commentary last Wednesday, denounced Mr Abe's efforts to amend the document as "a revelation of wicked design to turn Japan into a military giant".

Mr Abe has already outlined his proposed changes - including adding wording to the war-renouncing Article 9 that would make explicit the constitutionality of Japan's Self-Defence Forces. The country maintains almost 250,000 troops, hundreds of fighter jets and dozens of warships, although their activities are constrained by law.

 
 

Japan has also sent troops overseas on several occasions – and plans to send a naval destroyer and two surveillance planes to the Middle East next month on an information-gathering exercise in a region that provides the country with the bulk of its oil.

Japan spends about five trillion yen (S$61.1 billion) annually on defence. It has ramped up its financing each year that Mr Abe has been in office, in an effort to counter the growing capabilities of nuclear-armed neighbours such as China, Russia and North Korea, which has fired missiles over Japan.

"I am unwavering in my desire to be the one who achieves a revision of the constitution," Mr Abe told public broadcaster NHK in an interview broadcast Jan 12.

NATIONAL REFERENDUM

Even if Mr Abe were to cobble together the two-thirds majority needed in both houses of Parliament to pass a change, he would still need to pass a national referendum. Some surveys have shown a growing voter willingness to debate the issue, but there's no clear public consensus for a revision.

A poll by the Sankei newspaper and Fuji News Network this month found that 53.5 per cent of respondents were against changing the Constitution. A little more than half said they didn't approve of a revision under the Abe administration.

Mr Abe enters the year hobbled by scandals that have led to the arrest of a sitting LDP lawmaker accused of taking bribes from a Chinese company seeking to be involved in the local casino industry. He also faces lingering questions over whether he improperly rewarded constituency supporters with invitations to a publicly funded cherry blossom-viewing party.

 
 

While some in Japan's splintered opposition want to avoid debating the Constitution, Ms Shiori Yamao, a lawmaker with the Constitutional Democratic Party and a former prosecutor, said she wanted to start discussions as soon as possible.

In a Jan 16 interview, she expressed concern that a referendum could be held without the public fully understanding the implications.

"Prime Minister Abe has a concrete proposal that would write the SDF into the Constitution," she said. "We are against that. If you just write in that they exist without setting rules for their activities, there will be no constitutional restraints."