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Will Abe’s constitutional concessions be enough?

Author: Dalin Hamilton, Macquarie University

Constitutional revision is central to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s political agenda. He believes that in order to make Japan a ‘beautiful country’ — the title of Abe’s book, which describes a conservative Japan in which ‘Japaneseness’ and Japan’s unique culture, tradition, nature and history are properly valued — Japan must escape from its post-war US-drafted constitution that prescribes Japan’s ‘irresponsible pacifism’.

What is Abe’s strategy to accomplish constitutional revision?

Japan is a consensus-based society. Adequate nemawashi — the long and arduous process of building consensus through countless consultations, negotiations and compromises — sets the foundation for change. Nemawashi in the context of constitutional revision requires lengthy debate in the National Diet’s Commission on the Constitution (made up of a body of representatives from each party) followed by a national referendum. The political calendar and the Emperor’s abdication make achieving Diet nemawashi in 2019 difficult. Thus, to reach his 2020 goal, 2018 is Abe’s last chance for nemawashi.

The Diet’s Commission on the Constitution is not presently active because Japan’s opposition parties refuse to meet. To re-start the Commission, Abe is winding back his approach to constitutional revision in order to win back the opposition’s confidence, particularly that of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) and the Party of Hope. Gone is any talk of amending Article 96 of the Constitution (which stipulates the process of amending the Constitution) and gone is the unpopular 2012 draft for a revised constitution.

Abe took the radical step of adopting his coalition partner Komeito’s position on constitutional change. This position is called kaken: a compound word that connects the word ‘add’ to ‘constitution’. Kaken retains the current wording of the Constitution and exclusively supports the addition of new clauses (instead of rewriting existing clauses).

The LDP is currently debating the specific wording of four proposed additions.

The first addition adds a third clause to Article 9 (which covers renunciation of war and the right of belligerency). This third clause would formalise the existence of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and Japan’s right to exercise limited collective self-defence. These limited collective self-defence rights were authorised by the 2015 security bills.

The Komeito and Nippon Ishin no Kai parties support this addition. There are signs that the Party of Hope might back it if the security bills are reformed to restrict or remove Japan’s limited collective self-defence capabilities. Alternatively, the LDP could strike a deal to support a Party of Hope amendment in return for its backing on Article 9.

Abe is finding resistance to this addition from within the LDP — resistance led by Abe’s chief LDP rival former party secretary Shigeru Ishiba, who rejects a kaken approach to Article 9. Ishiba advocates the approach to Article 9 given in the LDP’s 2012 draft constitution, which completely re-wrote the Article to authorise a National Defense Force that could ‘conduct international cooperative activities in order to secure the peace and safety of the international society’. Ishiba’s group complains that revising Article 9 in line with the security bills is merely cheap symbolism that will have limited effect in increasing Japan’s ability to respond to security concerns. While this resistance is delaying the drafting of this amendment, a kaken approach to Article 9 will likely prevail given Abe’s power within the party.

The second addition aims to expand the government’s capability to fund education. The LDP has stopped short of advocating that subsidised pre-school education and increased funding for higher education be written into the constitution. During the last election, the LDP ran on these policies (which Nippon Ishin no Kai, Komeito, the CDPJ and the Party of Hope all supported).

The third addition was in the LDP 2012 draft constitution and would enable the government to call a state of emergency — defined as ‘armed attacks on our nation from abroad, disturbances of the social order due to internal strife, large-scale natural disasters, and so on’. Under the proposed amendments, the government would be able to exercise ‘emergency powers’ if such a state was called. Komeito has expressed hesitation about this addition, and all opposition parties except for Nippon Ishin no Kai have outright rejected it.

The fourth addition guarantees representation in the Diet’s upper house to each prefecture. The Supreme Court has previously judged election results as ‘in a state of unconstitutionality’ because rural districts were over-represented. This led to the re-drawing of districts with some now covering multiple prefectures. There is clear consensus within the LDP on this addition and the specific language of the amendment has already been agreed upon. As this addition will mostly accrue benefits to the LDP, all other parties are opposed.

The exact language of these additions (expected to be released by the LDP soon) and the responses of other parties will reveal if the LDP can restart the Commission. The chances of the CDPJ and the Japanese Communist Party agreeing to this are low despite Abe’s willingness to demonstrate flexibility on the matter. Abe has already moderated his stance on constitutional revision to get this far — what more is he willing to give up in order to see a national referendum held while he is Prime Minister?

Dalin Hamilton is a Master of International Relations student at Macquarie University.

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