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Abe Faces Challenge to Japan Constitutional Reform After Party Election

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to reporters at Abe's official residence in Tokyo, June 6, 2018, before leaving for the U.S.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to reporters at Abe's official residence in Tokyo, June 6, 2018, before leaving for the U.S.

As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gears up for a ruling party election to remain in office, he has reaffirmed his controversial commitment to revising the country’s post-war constitution, which bans the nation from creating and maintaining military forces.

"Let’s fulfill our mission by clearly writing in the constitution the Self-Defense Forces that protect peace and independence of Japan," Abe told Liberal Democratic Party members in a televised address Monday.

Over the years, Tokyo has interpreted the constitution’s Article 9 to allow for the creation of a force for self-defense, but now the Prime Minister seeks to revise it to formally recognize Japan’s Self-Defense Force “as a legitimate entity with the mission to and the role of protecting the country,” said Grant Newsham, Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo, who adds it is a change he considers necessary.

Why pursue Article 9 revisions?

Sejong University professor Yuji Hosaka identifies two advantages to passing it.

First, he said, “they [Japan] can have legal military forces in their country,” saying the current Self-Defense Force violates the constitution.

“Second, if they legalize [the] Self-Defense forces, they [Japan] can actively send troops overseas and do take active military actions. And then they [Japan] can finally have a formal military,” Hosaka said.

The language of Article 9 also limits Japan’s “offensive capabilities”, according to Jonathan Miller, Senior Fellow at the EastWest Institute.

While the threat from North Korea is one factor embarking on this constitutional change, Miller said China in the “short-term, medium-term, and long-term… is an important factor. So, some of the capabilities Japan feels it needs to defend itself are becoming complicated by its constitution.”

Miller adds Tokyo’s prior reinterpretation of Article 9, and other security and defense reforms, have allowed for Japan to enhance its security role as an ally in the region.

But, that is not the only reason for pursuing the constitutional change.

In Monday's address, Abe said, “Isn’t it the mission of us politicians living today to create an environment in which they (SDF members) can carry out their duties with a sense of pride?"

Newsham agreed, saying SDF members feel “belittled and marginalized” and service members don’t wear their uniforms in public.

Upcoming party election

Analysts tell VOA support for Abe among LDP members will likely result in another three-year term. If that is the case, that will put Abe in a position to become Japan’s longest-serving premier.

His popularity among LDP members wavered in the first half of 2018, a result of a number of scandals. That is largely behind him and his approval ratings have climbed. Abe's closest rival in the contest, former defense minister Shiguru Ishiba, is not expected to pose a significant challenge to his bid.

“He’s an established politician, with a large constituency, but his time just hasn’t come,” says Newsham.

Asia-Pacific analyst Evan Rees with STRATFOR, told VOA, “that nearly 80% of lawmakers will vote for Abe in the internal elections, and that’s matched by another 60% rank-and-file party members.”

Getting the revision passed

If Prime Minister Abe is successful in his re-election bid, he said he hoped his party could present a proposed Self Defense Force revision before the end of the year.

Rees calls revising Article 9 a “challenging and extremely tricky issue in Japanese politics.”

Currently, the LDP holds about 60 percent of the seats in parliament. To get to the required two-thirds majority to send it to a public referendum for final approval, the LDP would need support from its coalition partner, the Komeito.

However, the Komeito has been “historically opposed to constitutional change,” said Rees.

If the measure passes parliament, a public referendum is then held and a simple majority must vote in favor of it.

But Rees said the public is divided on the issue, with about 44 percent in favor and roughly 46 percent opposed according to polls. “Those numbers go back and forth. It’s just a hard sell and it’s hard to pass that symbolic threshold,” he noted.

Despite the challenges facing Abe and the LDP, Grant Newsham said there remains a possibility for the revision to not only pass parliament, but also a public referendum.

“If Mr. Abe explains his case,” Newsham said, “and explains why it [the constitutional revision] is necessary… I think you often find that the Japanese public is more understanding and better grasps the need for proper national security strategy than most of the politicians.”

Although he cautions that pursuing the constitutional revision could risk becoming a distraction and keep the Japanese government from focusing on “more important things... like making sure [the different branches of the Self-Defense Forces] have a radio that can talk to each other... so they can operate together.”

Newsham predicts the opposition will do what it can to prevent the revision from passing. But if it does, he said, “people won’t notice much has changed.”

Lee Ju-hyun contributed to this report in Seoul.