Abe is clearly on a mission to amend Japan’s constitution, despite pledges to put the economy first

Kevin Rafferty says with polls showing most Japanese are against constitutional reform, the prime minister should think twice before messing with popular fears

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 August, 2016, 2:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 08 August, 2016, 5:31pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s appointment of the strongly nationalist Tomomi Inada to the key and sensitive post of defence minister can hardly be reassuring either to Japan’s neighbours or to the majority of Japanese who don’t want to change the country’s long-revered constitution. A small test will be whether Inada visits the Yasukuni Shrine in the next week to honour the country’s war dead, as has been her wont.

But her appointment and political gossip that she is being lined up to succeed Abe when his term expires in 2018 – unless he changes the rules to be able to continue in office – suggest Abe and friends are hell-bent on amending the constitution, in their eyes a humiliating imposition by the victorious US forces.

Initially, Abe heralded his triumph in last month’s elections for half of the upper house of parliament as a victory for his “Abenomics” economic policies, specifically asserting that the poll was not about the constitution. Before the election, Masahiko Komura, vice-president of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, had declared on TV there was “zero possibility” that Abe would revise the war-renouncing Article 9 of the constitution, even if he won a two-thirds majority.

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The LDP fell just short of such a majority in the upper house, but can comfortably count on allies to achieve that. Immediately after the results came in, Abe declared: “The nation has given me a powerful mandate to further accelerate Abenomics.”

But he changed his tune the next day, claiming it was his “duty” as LDP leader to revise the constitution. “We have always set a goal of revising the constitution,” he said. “That is my duty.”

Winning big with a relatively low 54 per cent turnout on an economic platform does not give Abe a mandate for constitutional change. Anyway, all opinion polls show that most Japanese are against it. A recent poll by public broadcaster NHK showed that only 26 per cent agree with constitutional reform, and only 11 per cent believe that it is a priority.

Equally important, Abe ’s constitutional vision is impaired. Inspired by his grandfather, wartime minister and post-war prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, Abe wants to make Japan “normal” again; but that normality is the normal of the imperial 1930s. No wonder that Japan’s neighbours, including South Korea and China, are sounding alarm bells.

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Also worrying, Abe has not come clean about how he plans to revise the constitution, whether he would merely abolish Article 9, thus allowing Japan to have a fully fledged military, or whether he wants to change the whole document along the lines of an LDP draft.

The full LDP document is both far-reaching and flawed. Besides creating military forces, it would give more powers to the government, diminishing the rights of citizens as well as imposing new duties on them, and put the family, not the individual, as the fundamental unit of society.

Such a document requires a full airing and debate, clause by clause, which has not taken place even within the LDP. It would be dangerous to try to pass such a constitution without the commitment of the people.

It is a measure of Abe’s stubbornness that he has three times promised that the economy and Abenomics were his priority, only to get diverted twice by his mission to change the constitution. We can only hope that it will not be third time unlucky.

Abe’s latest economic stimulus is typical of his approach: he has tried to solve problems by waving his magic wand of large sums of money. But it is still not clear how much of the headline 28.1 trillion yen (almost HK$2.2 trillion) is new or real money.

Throwing money at the problem won’t work because there are limits to the new Shinkansen, or roads or bridges to nowhere, that Japan can build. There is also the question of whether Japan, with its ageing and declining population and cash-strapped budget, can afford to try to go back to the 1930s.

Even if he can summon the two-thirds majority in both houses to pass constitutional change, Abe still needs approval from the Japanese people. The lessons of Brexit should teach him that it is not a good idea to mess with popular fears.

Kevin Rafferty is a long-time journalist and commentator on Asia, and former professor of Osaka University