Why Abe’s Constitutional Reform Is Destined to Fail
June 1, 2017
In the wake of Prime Minister Abe’s recently announce d aim to place constitutional reform on the political agenda, Katsuyuki Yakushiji examines the historical context of this highly charged issue and offers his views on the ideological subtext.
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Revising Japan’s 1947 Constitution, which renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation, has been the stated goal of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party from its inception. Yet for decades, amendment of the postwar Constitution has been a political nonstarter. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is hoping to change that.
In early May, Abe, a longtime proponent of constitutional reform, abruptly raised the political stakes by setting a timeline for amendment. In a video message shown at a rally staged by a pro-revision group, and again in an interview for the daily Yomiuri Shimbun , Abe announced plans to push through a set of constitutional amendments that he hopes will come into effect by 2020—the year of the Tokyo Olympics. The proposed reforms center on changes to the war-renouncing Article 9, accompanied by one or two amendments with broad popular appeal, such as a new provision guaranteeing the right to education at no cost. 
The ultimate target of constitutional reform has always been the war-renouncing Article 9. In his recent statements, Abe stressed the need to explicitly affirm the legality of the Self-Defense Forces and put to rest once and for all arguments that the SDF are unconstitutional. But is the change he is proposing really worth the political firestorm that the effort is bound to ignite?
Article 9 states that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained,” but this has not stopped Japan from building a robust military. The Japanese government has long taken the position that the SDF are constitutional because Article 9 constitutes a ban on military aggression, not a denial of Japan’s basic right to defend itself. This interpretation has never been successfully challenged.
Abe’s sudden determination to tackle constitutional reform seems to be driven more by his awareness that there may never be a better opportunity to pursue a quest dear to his heart. For the first time, pro-revision parties have secured a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Diet—enough to allow the government to call a national referendum to amend the Constitution. That said, the passage of such a bill is scarcely a slam-dunk. Apart from fierce resistance from the political opposition, Abe faces questions from within his own ruling bloc.
The Constitution’s Curious History
The revision issue is intimately bound up with the complex history of Japan’s postwar Constitution. For six years following Japan’s 1945 surrender in World War II, Japan was under the control of the Allied Occupation forces. Early on, General Douglas Macarthur, as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan, called on the Japanese government to draft a revised constitution consistent with the Occupation’s goals of demilitarization and democratic reform. But the draft the Japanese initially submitted to Macarthur departed only minimally from the Meiji Constitution in effect since 1890.
Macarthur responded by ordering his staff at General Headquarters (GHQ) to prepare their own constitutional draft incorporating what have come to be known as Macarthur’s three principles: preservation of the imperial institution as a limited monarchy, renunciation of war, and abolition of Japanese feudalism. The emperor was to become a symbol of the state and made exempt from prosecution for war crimes; the old military apparatus was to be dismantled; and feudal institutions were to be replaced with modern democratic ones. The aim was to ensure that Japanese militarism would never again rear its head and threaten the United States.
The draft caused an uproar among Japan’s conservatives. They protested that it ignored input from the Japanese side and that it would uproot hallowed Japanese political and social institutions. However, they were in no position to resist. The powerless Japanese cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Kijuro Shidehara, was obliged to accept the new Constitution, which came into effect in May 1947.
The Occupation ended in 1951. Four years later, the Liberal Democratic Party, which was to rule Japan almost continuously for the next 60-odd years, was created through the merger of conservative forces led by the Liberal Party and the Japan Democratic Party. The November 1955 statement titled Party Mission, one of the LDP’s founding documents, offers insight into the party’s opinion of the 1947 Constitution.
“In Japan today, love of country and the spirit of self-reliance are in decline, politics is adrift, . . . economic uncertainty prevails, and the nation has yet to regain a fully independent footing; meanwhile, class warfare aimed at imposing a dictatorship continues to intensify. It seems clear that the excesses of the Occupation’s policies in the early postwar period are a major reason we have come to this pass. The democracy and liberalism imposed by the Occupation should be respected and upheld as leading principles of the new Japan, but because the Occupation’s policies were oriented principally toward weakening Japan, many of the reforms of our education system and other institutions, beginning with the Constitution, wrongly suppressed respect for the state and patriotism and unduly fragmented and weakened the power of the state.” 
In short, the conservatives who dominated the LDP at the time believed that the Constitution drafted by GHQ was intended to weaken Japan from within by destroying the prewar political system, with the emperor at its apex, and other vital prewar institutions. And while this theory is seldom heard nowadays, the LDP platform retains its original goal of “independently revising the current Constitution.” Moreover, there is evidence that influential elements within the LDP remain motivated by essentially the same ideology articulated in that early declaration.
The LDP’s Patient Campaign
In truth, the Occupation authorities fully anticipated that Japan, having once regained its sovereignty, would replace the 1947 Constitution the first chance it got. Contrary to those assumptions, Japan has preserved the national charter without amendment to this day.
The biggest reason is probably that the LDP, despite its dominance of postwar politics, was never able to secure the two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Diet needed to place a constitutional referendum before the people. It should also be noted that ideological diversity within the LDP, which embraces a substantial number of doves and moderates, has made it difficult for the party to come out strongly in favor of amending Article 9. Furthermore, strong public support for the postwar Constitution’s explicit anti-war and pro-human-rights provisions have prevented constitutional reform from gathering much support at the popular level.
But the pro-revision forces in the LDP never abandoned their goal. In 2005, prior to adopting its first official draft of a revised constitution, the party released a “basic proposal” ( soan ) that set forth principles and guidelines for revision. While explicitly rejecting the militarism of prewar Japan and affirming the need to protect basic human rights, the document is nonetheless written in the language of nationalism, including numerous references to the state. It calls for a charter embodying “values rooted in [Japan’s] history, tradition, and culture,” referred to collectively as “our basic national character” ( kunigara ).
The LDP subsequently withdrew the controversial document, and the draft that it adopted in 2005 seemed designed to deflect charges of resurgent nationalism. In its proposed amendment of Article 9, it was careful to refer to the military as a “self-defense” force.
However, in the LDP’s 2012 “new draft Constitution,” prepared and adopted in the brief period when the Democratic Party of Japan was at the helm, the influence of the party’s hawks is clearly in evidence. In the preamble, the draft states that “the people will protect their country and ancestral homes with pride and spirit.” It identifies the emperor as the head of state and refers to the SDF as Japan’s national defense force. Designating the Hinomaru as the national flag and “Kimigayo” as the national anthem, it declares that “the people must respect the national flag and the state.” 
Abe’s Complex Motives
What are Prime Minister Abe’s own attitudes toward the Constitution? We know that he has been deeply involved in the LDP’s revision efforts up to this point. As prime minister (first in 2006–07 and again since late 2012), he has expressed strong misgivings about the way Occupation policies shaped Japan’s postwar democracy. During his first stint in office, he called for a “departure from the postwar regime.” Asked to explain his remarks to the Diet, he answered as follows. “The Constitution, the Basic Act on Education, and other statutes that form the foundation of this country were enacted while Japan was under occupation and have remained unchanged for more than a half century. What I was trying to say when I used the words ‘departure from the postwar regime’ is that the days of assuming that nothing established at that time can or should be changed are over.” 
In his recent call for change, Abe backed away from the kind of wholesale revision that got the LDP into hot water in the past. This time Abe is calling for just a few amendments—a relatively muted change to Article 9 along with a couple other provisions designed to have broad popular appeal. In his Yomiuri interview, Abe essentially nixed the LDP’s 2012 draft revision, saying, “Politics is about reality; you need to deliver results.” This suggests that Abe is looking to his legacy: He wants to be able to say that he oversaw the first revision of the postwar Constitution, no matter how limited, and his strategy for achieving that is to zero in on the sort of changes least likely to provoke a backlash.
Why should constitutional reform be so controversial? After all, the democratic nations of the West have amended their constitutions repeatedly. (Germany, for its part, has done so 60 times.) Typical examples are the US constitutional amendment limiting an elected president to two terms in office, the Canadian amendment modifying the formula for apportioning seats in the House of Commons, and France’s shift to direct presidential elections. Such amendments sought to modernize or enhance specific aspects of those nations’ democratic institutions, not alter the constitution’s basic thrust or call into question the concepts of individual liberty, basic human rights, and the rule of law on which democracy rests.
But in Japan, which has never experienced its own democratic revolution, the pro- and anti-revision forces continue to argue over the fundamentals of democracy, including the principle of constitutionalism and the relationship between the individual and the state. At a lower house Budget Committee session in February 2014, Abe himself opined that “the idea of a constitution as something designed to limit the power of the state is [an outdated] view rooted in an era when monarchs had absolute power.” 
Combined with the call for a “departure from the postwar regime,” statements like this shed light on Abe’s basic attitude toward the current Constitution and suggest that at the heart of his crusade for revision is a wish to roll back the supposed excesses of democracy and individualism ushered in under the US-drafted postwar Constitution. Despite the prime minister’s latest attempts to give constitutional reform a friendlier face, the Japanese people remain deeply suspicious of the motives underlying the movement. And for this reason the revision campaign is destined to fail.
1. Yomiuri Shimbun , May 3, 2016. See https://www.j-cast.com/2017/05/03297160.html?p=all and http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/05/03/national/politics-diplomacy/abe-declares-2020-goal-new-constitution/#.WSSuEPQrIxx .