Shinzo Abe’s path to reform Japan’s constitution

In September 2018, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was re-elected in a landslide victory as the head of Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). His election to a third term means Abe is poised to be Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. Abe has consistently pledged throughout his tenure to amend Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, a section of the constitution prohibiting Japan from declaring war and from maintaining armed forces. Japan currently maintains a de facto army, the Self-Defense Forces, but Abe’s re-election has invited discussion about the viability of a potential constitutional amendment.

In order to amend the constitution, Abe will need a two-thirds majority in both houses in the National Diet, Japan’s legislature, as well as a referendum vote and the Emperor’s approval. Though the prime minister is targeting an amendment by 2020, his plans may be endangered by a small majority of the public vehemently opposed to the amendment. The proposal of revision not only instigates different reactions from other Asian states, but also challenges the public perception of Japanese identity and national values as pacifist people.

The proposal

The current Japanese constitution, adopted in 1947 under postwar U.S. occupation, included a prohibition on war to prevent Japanese rearmament. Article 9 states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” and that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” For decades, both the left and right wings of the LDP have sought to revise Article 9 through the amendment process specified in Article 96 of the Japanese constitution, but opponents have continually maintained over a third of the Diet’s seats, blocking any reform.

In lieu of an amendment, Abe’s government has circumvented the prohibitions of Article 9 through reinterpretation. In 2015, the Diet passed a law reinterpreting Article 9 by allowing the SDF to “defend other allies in case of war being declared upon them” — because to fail to do so would weaken alliances and threaten Japanese security. Prior to the law, the SDF was involved with other international peacekeeping operations, such as in Iraq from 2004 to 2006.

Many consider the Diet’s reinterpretation of Article 9 to be illegitimate because it evades the stringent amendment process, in addition to codifying what many consider a blatant violation of the article. The reinterpretation has not only instigated controversy but also it does not reconcile the ostensible contradiction between constitution and reality. Abe’s revision aims to reconcile that contradiction by retaining the two existing paragraphs in Article 9 while including language that legitimizes the existence and role of the SDF.

Public opinion

Today, a majority of the Japanese support the existence of the SDF, but they do not wish to further enlarge it, because collective memory of the Second World War and fear of militarization remains strong. Regarding amendments repealing Article 9, the latest polling as of September 2018 indicated that while 44 percent of the Japanese public supports revising Article 9, 46 percent are opposed. A poll conducted by a major Japanese newspaper in May 2018 found that 53 percent of the Japanese public opposes Abe’s plan for changing the constitution. Overall, polls seem to indicate that a small majority opposes Abe’s revision.

The predictive power of public opinion polls is far from absolute. However, many of these polls include options for the correspondent to include their rationale — by far the most interesting takeaway. The most popular reason for opposing revision is the belief that the constitution “has brought peace.” This reflects the entrenched pacifism among a majority of the Japanese public. The unique existence among all national constitutions of an article renouncing war is a source of national pride for the Japanese and feeds into Japan’s sense of exceptionalism. Hence, to muster public support for a constitutional amendment, Prime Minister Abe needs to be mindful of the implications on Japan’s self-image. Any revision of Article 9 will engineer a reconstruction of this facet of Japanese identity. Abe’s coalition has already abandoned a plan to propose the constitutional changes in 2018, but it is likely he will try again next year — how he plans on gaining public support will be critical to his proposal’s success or failure.


Author: Nico Han

Nico Han is a staff writer at The Compass. She is majoring in International Affairs with concentrations in Asia and Europe, having completed part of her study at Waseda University and the London School of Economics. She is the strategist and panel facilitator for GW Global China Connection and a co-founder of the student publication Cathay’s Review. In her spare time, she writes fiction, hikes, and volunteers as an orientation leader at the GW Office of Study Abroad.