Will Abe amend Japan's pacifist constitution?
Shinzo Abe has won a third term as Japan’s prime minister in an unexpectedly decisive victory. The supermajority won by his Liberal Democratic party gives him a platform from which to consolidate the economic policy named after him, Abenomics. Sarah Witt discusses the implications of this with the FT's Robin Harding and Emiko Terazono.
Presented by Sarah Witt, and produced by Fiona Symon
From the Financial Times, in London, I'm Sarah Witt, and this is FT News. Shinzo Abe won a third term as Japan's prime minister in an unexpectedly decisive election victory at the weekend. The supermajority won by his Liberal Democratic Party now gives him a platform from which to consolidate his economic policy, known as Abenomics, but also to amend the country's pacifist constitution, which has been among his most cherished long-term goals. Here with me to discuss this is our Tokyo bureau chief, Robin Harding, and Emiko Terazono, a former Tokyo business reporter and now the FT's commodities correspondent.
Robin, first tell us about the election result. How did Mr. Abe pull off such a decisive win, and what happened to the opposition?
Well, this was less an election that Mr. Abe won than an election that the opposition lost. The details are quite complicated. But, essentially, despite a moment when it looked like they might get their act together, the opposition was badly divided into two main forces-- a sort of conservative opposition, which was called the Party of Hope, and a new, left opposition, the Constitutional Democratic Party, plus a whole assortment of independents.
But the end result of this was that the opposition vote was badly split, and Prime Minister Abe had a fairly easy ride to victory. The campaign itself implicitly made the point that you get stability with Abe and you get chaos with the opposition, so vote for the devil you know and keep the government. That's kind of how it played out.
Right. What do you think Mr. Abe's priority will be now? And how quickly do you think he will move to change the constitution?
Well, I think Mr. Abe will initially focus on the economy. That's been the core of his government and why the voters have reelected him twice now. So I suspect we'll see some initiatives there, first. But the constitution is his deepest personal long-term priority.
And I think he certainly will attempt a revision of some kind. The schedule I've heard mapped out by aides and officials is that they would like to introduce a bill in the diet next spring, debate it and pass it in the summer, and then hold a ratifying referendum in autumn 2018. So that's the kind of basic time frame, but it's not simple. The hurdles to passing a constitutional revision in Japan are very high. And he's going to have to proceed very carefully.
Emiko, you grew up in Japan. Tell us about the history of Article 9 and how the Japanese public has tended to view this particular clause of the constitution.
Well, Article 9 is about Japan foregoing war, and it is a cherished part of Japan's constitution. But, on a practical level, Japan does have a so-called self-defense force which in reality, I would say, is an army. And there are some people who say it doesn't really work. Especially with tensions in the region with North Korea and China, can Japan really rely solely on its allies?
But there again, most people in Japan now have only lived through this clause. And there'll be huge reluctance to change it, I would imagine.
During a recent visit to Tokyo, did you notice any change in public attitudes towards the issue?
Well, what was amazing was that it was a snap election. And in the run-up to the election there was very little debate about changing the constitution. As Robin pointed out, I think Abe's priority was the economy. And the concept of what "constitutional change" actually means remains quite vague in man on the street.
So how significant would it be for the Japanese people if they were to make this decision?
I think it would be a huge moment for Japan. And Robin maybe would want to clarify, but it sounds like the polls are split down the middle. And I don't necessarily think it's a generational issue, either. So it will be very interesting to see how the debate goes from here.
Robin, do you think evolving regional threats from China and North Korea will be a factor in shifting public opinion in favour of the constitutional change?
I think that's certainly part of the backdrop to the constitutional debate in Japan. Mr. Abe has steadily pushed this forward, and he repeatedly points to North Korea. North Korea is a good bogeyman for these debates. China is a much more difficult question. But, by pointing to North Korea, it's very easy to say, we need more ability to respond flexibly to this threat.
Just to clarify a little bit on what's likely to happen with Article 9, because I think people sometimes see this in black and white, as you either have it or you don't. But that's really not where the debate is in Japan at the moment. Mr. Abe's most recent proposal is simply to add a clause to Article 9 of the constitution that would clarify the legality of Japan's existing self-defense forces. So it would keep the pacifist parts of the constitution.
The revisionists, the right wing who want to change this, they see doing that as a bridge to a future scrapping of Article 9 altogether. But, in the short term, the debate is much more tightly constrained than that. I think it's very, very unlikely that Mr. Abe will actually try to scrap Article 9 altogether.
And, Robin, do you think there'll be any pushback from Japan's allies?
No. I think Japan's allies are 100% behind any change to Article 9. In fact, the US wrote Japan's postwar constitution, but basically they started to regret quite quickly, as the Cold War took effect, that they had put Japan in this position where it couldn't contribute to its own defence, basically obliging the US to defend Japan instead. And, as we've seen, Donald Trump wants to reduce US defence commitments to allies. So I'd imagine he'd be fully on board with any changes that Mr. Abe wants to make.
Well, it will be very interesting to see how this plays out. Thanks to Robin and to Emiko.