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Shinzo Abe

Note to Shinzo Abe: revising the Japanese constitution won’t build a better future

Kevin Rafferty says the victorious prime minister’s obsession with constitutional revision will only lead to increased regional tension, and certainly won’t help Japan tackle its long-term demographic dilemma

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 October, 2017, 11:18am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 October, 2017, 7:08pm

The media in Japan and abroad heralded Shinzo Abe’s “landslide win” in Sunday’s election. If you look at the numbers, the landscape has barely changed: Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito both lost seats and scraped through to a slender two-thirds majority in the lower house.

However, the largest opposition party, the Constitutional Democrats, has a mere 55 seats and the next biggest has 50. More pertinently, these two parties bitterly oppose each other, and in many aspects Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike’s Party of Hope is to the right of Abe.

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The result might encourage Abe to ditch Komeito and ally with Koike. This would give him 21 more seats for his cherished ambition of amending Japan’s pacifist constitution – an issue Komeito is lukewarm on. He could dangle before her the dream of taking over from him after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. It would be cynical, but typical of Japan’s politicians.

Winning the election was the easy part. Even after three election wins and five years in power Abe has not realised he has limited political capital and must spend it wisely. Nor has he understood that leaders of sophisticated modern countries do not have magic wands to change things they don’t like.

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Abe cannot command the economy to grow at more than 2 per cent without painful reforms, or somehow stopping Japanese people growing old, or getting women to have more babies. Nor has he managed to persuade the ruling barons of Japan Inc to put more women into boardrooms or senior managerial positions, or to contribute more of their cash reserves to higher wages, all of which would boost the economy.

The key question is whether Abe can tackle the threat from North Korea’s determination to become a fully fledged nuclear state; get to grips with economic problems worsening as Japan ages; and amend the pacifist constitution simultaneously. Past experience says it is a juggling act too far.

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Abe triumphantly declared that the “historic” election victory gave him the mandate to revise the constitution, though a majority of Japanese don’t want change. Any constitutional amendment requires the support of two-thirds of both Diet houses, which Abe has, then a majority in a referendum, so time, money and energy will have to be spent to devise a formula that can win popular support, using political capital that could be devoted to the economy.

Abe’s ambition is to restore Japan’s independence from a US-imposed constitution, ironic given his closeness to Donald Trump. Is this worth Japan’s future?

Emboldened Abe’s constitutional quest threatens regional stability and Japan’s economy

Outside Japan, particularly in China and the two Koreas, amending the constitution will be portrayed as a return to militarism. Abe, like Trump, does not take into account foreign feelings. But Japan is much more vulnerable than the US to outsiders.

If the Korean peninsula explodes into war, even non-nuclear, Japan will suffer heavy collateral damage – or worse if North Korea attacks its US bases. Increased military spending – damaging Japan’s fragile finances – will not diminish the horrors of war.

Abe’s election super majority puts Japan’s pacifist constitution in his crosshairs

If war is avoided and Korea is reunited, Japan is also vulnerable. By 2050, its population will be 107 million, 40 per cent over 65 years of age, for which a united Korea of 75 million people would be a formidable economic competitor.

A wise Japan would remember the searing experience of militarism and nuclear defeat to build on the pacifist constitution and create an Asian century of peace where neighbours seek harmony. In seeking constitutional revision to enshrine military forces, Abe is setting the clock back.

Kevin Rafferty, a former Osaka University professor and World Bank official, is a journalist who has edited daily newspapers in 30 cities worldwide