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BY Ben Ascione is a PhD candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University. He is Japan and Korea editor at East Asia Forum and a research associate of the Japan Center for International Exchange in Tokyo and APP member
First appeared in the East Asia Forum, 24 July 2016
Since the 10 July upper house election in Japan there has been widespread speculation that the government will move to formally revise the country’s constitution including the Article 9 ‘peace clause’. This now appears possible since the Abe-led Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), along with its junior coalition partner Komeito and sympathetic micro-sized right-leaning opposition parties, controls the two-thirds majorities in both houses needed to take constitutional amendments to a referendum.
Never in the years since Japan’s postwar constitution was enacted in 1947 has it been formally amended. Even though the government has the requisite number of seats, forging an agreement with Komeito and persuading the broader voting public that constitutional revision is desirable will be no easy task.
While voters want the government to focus on revitalising the economy, there is absolutely no question that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe carries ambitions to revise Article 9. He was vocal about this during his first stint as prime minister in 2006–07. His book Towards a Beautiful Country characterises Japanese security policy as irresponsible pacifism. Research by Asia Policy Point shows that Abe and about half his cabinet members are affiliated with the Diet Members’ League to Promote Research on the Constitution, Sousei Nippon (Japan Rebirth) and Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), all of which give high priority to rescinding Article 9. Abe’s relationship with his grandfather — Nobusuke Kishi, a former prime minister, war criminal suspect and munitions minister under the wartime cabinet of Hideki Tojo — is also said to drive his convictions.
Komeito (meaning clean governance party) holds the balance of power and the LDP will have to reach an agreement with it to move forward on any constitutional amendment. Despite Komeito’s status as the junior partner, the LDP cannot afford to lose it. LDP leverage over Komeito is limited by an electoral cooperation arrangement, which sees Komeito voters supply between 5 and 20 per cent of the votes LDP candidates receives in single-seat districts in both houses in exchange for influence as a ruling party. Many LDP politicians’ seats would be under serious threat if this deal came unstuck.
Komeito was a political offshoot of the Nichiren Buddhist movement Soka Gakkai (literally value creation study association). Its founders, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda, were arrested by the wartime military government for speaking out against the abuse of the educational process for militarist purposes. Makiguchi died in jail a martyr. This history imbues Komeito with pacifist values.
Soka Gakkai members, with their distinctive combination of Buddhism, modern humanism and electioneering savvy, have been willing to extend support to Komeito and qualify their absolute pacifist stance, as Levi McLaughlin has explained. Komeito supported the LDP in passing the 1992 Peacekeeping Operations Law after negotiating principles which limit the Japan Self-Defense Forces’ (SDF) activities on UN missions to ceasefire areas rather than active conflict zones and curtail SDF use of weapons to the minimum necessary to protect the lives of SDF personnel. Komeito also supported the LDP in order to permit the dispatch of the SDF to the Indian Ocean to refuel US ships on route to Afghanistan under the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law and to Iraq in 2003 to carry out humanitarian operations such as building schools and water purification.
Most recently Komeito supported the Abe cabinet’s reinterpretation of Article 9 to permit limited forms of collective self-defence in July 2014 and the security-related bills last year that enabled this cabinet decision. Komeito’s rhetoric stalled the LDP and squeezed it for concessions by emphasising the need for long and wide debates rooted in concrete proposals and the need to bring the people along with these changes.
This allowed it to shift the focus of the conditions under which collective self-defence — a concept which is primarily focused on threats against targets other than one’s own country — so it could only be exercised in response to attacks that threaten the survival of Japan and the Japanese people’s constitutional right to ‘life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’. This focus on attacks threatening Japan contrasts sharply with the report in May 2014 by Abe’s hand-picked advisory group, which recommended a less restrained conception of the exercise of collective self-defence, before Komeito influence came to bear.
Komeito justified its stance to its support base by emphasising that it is a serious party and coalition partner willing to make compromises to exercise power and to continue to act as a brake on the LDP’s policy excesses. It maintained that the compromises made were better than the alternative of working from opposition. In a nutshell, Komeito brands itself as ‘the opposition within the government’.
Yet all of Komeito’s support for LDP security policies thus far has been justified within the framework of Article 9. A common rebuttal of critics who accuse Komeito of betraying its pacifist principles is that it has simply updated its pacifism to contemporary circumstances and in practical ways.
If Article 9 were to be amended, one option Komeito could possibly get behind would be to revise the second paragraph, which forbids the maintenance of ‘land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential’ in order to affirm explicitly the constitutionality of the SDF, while maintaining the first paragraph under which the Japanese people renounce ‘the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes’.
But a revision that seriously alters the spirit of Article 9 or outright rescinds it would surely be a no-go for Komeito that would seriously undermine its loyal support base.
Any LDP-Komeito agreement on constitutional revision will also need the support of the voting public to pass a national referendum, something that the LDP deliberately avoided talking about during the campaign period. Given strong public opposition, the government may focus on Abenomics economic policy for now and return to constitutional issues later in Abe’s remaining two years.