Shinzo Abe

Abe's wrong-headed move to revise the constitution

Kevin Rafferty says Shinzo Abe’s single-minded attempt to force through constitutional changes, to which the people are indifferent, raises fears that Japan may try to relive its nationalist past

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 4:55pm

Shinzo Abe, Japan's new prime minister, is going full speed ahead with his plan to rewrite the country's pacific and war- renouncing constitution to his own nationalist image.

It is a reckless plan that is not only anti-democratic but is likely to set back Japan's diplomatic and political relations while doing nothing for its main tasks, which are urgent reforms to a stagnant economy and a rapidly ageing society.

Abe has devised a fast-track road map to simplify his task. He will revise Article 96, which demands that constitutional changes must be approved by two-thirds of both houses of parliament and then put to a popular referendum. He wants to change this to a simple majority in parliament.

Debate before the referendum will be constrained by a law passed when Abe was previously in office. The referendum can be held as early as 60 days after the Diet decision and must be held within 180 days. Civil servants and educators are prohibited from engaging in activities that might affect the outcome of the referendum and, in the two weeks before, there will be further limits on public discussions. As it is, a referendum needs only a simple majority; easy to get through an apathetic public.

Abe claims Japan needs to grow up and throw off the yoke of a constitution drafted by the US occupiers after Japan's defeat in the second world war. In particular, Article 9, which famously renounces war and prohibits military forces, inhibits Japan's needs for collective self-defence.

Before Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party romped back into power last year, with an overwhelming majority, the party published its own draft constitution.

This has a string of changes that would damage or destroy the fine promises of the current constitution, which not only renounced war, but gave women equal rights and enshrined "respect for fundamental human rights", including equality, freedom of assembly, speech, thought, and the right to sue the state.

The draft re-establishes military forces under the leadership of the prime minister as commander in chief, with powers to defend Japan from foreign attack and to maintain domestic public order.

It makes the emperor again head of state, rather than, as today, the symbol of the state, who has to respect the constitution like everyone else. The prime minister can declare a state of emergency, not only to handle foreign invasion but also for domestic rebellion or natural disaster. The draft also removes the words of the current preamble that the government is a trust of the people and that people have "the right to live in peace, free from want and fear".

But, most of all, it changes the balance between the individual and the state, imposing obligations on the people to respect the state. The LDP draft states that, "Human rights should have ground on the State's history, culture and tradition" and "Several of the current constitutional provisions are based on Western-European theory of natural human rights; such provisions therefore require to be changed."

Thus, the people "must respect the national anthem and flag"; must be conscious that they have responsibilities and obligations in compensation for freedom and rights; and must comply with the public interest and public order. The state is also permitted to perform religious acts within the scope of "social protocol and ethno-cultural practices".

This turns on its head the American idea of "We the people …" as the US constitution starts. Add it all up and worry that Abe is hurrying back to potentially dangerous nationalism.

Abe should be firmly told - if there are any people with guts in the cabinet, the bureaucracy or judiciary - that the constitution does not belong to Abe but to the people of Japan. Unfortunately, that's not the Japanese way. Many Japanese do worry whether Article 9 allows the country the flexibility to cope with crises, but many point out that it has not held back the Self-Defence Forces, which have the sophistication to cope with any foreign attack. There is no general clamour to rewrite the constitution, and a lot of worry about Abe's wish to whitewash Japan's history.

Unfortunately, rising nationalism in China has matched and encouraged Abe's nationalism, with his rosy view of Japanese imperialism. It is unclear whether he is driven by a desire to vindicate his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, accused of exploiting forced Chinese labour in Manchuria, arrested as a class-A war criminal, but released without indictment or trial, who later became prime minister.

Whatever the problems of its American provenance, Japan's constitution pointed - and still points - a new way for a nation to rise from the ashes of war and defeat, by following ideals and giving opportunities for all.

Abe risks distracting Japan dangerously from its real tasks of social and economic reform. In turning the clock back to a nationalist past, proud of its imperial achievements, he will nourish Chinese and Korean grievances more bitter and alive than Japan's.

Kevin Rafferty is author of Inside Japan's Powerhouses, an account of Japan Inc and internationalisation