Japan’s Path to Constitutional Amendment

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Japan’s Path to Constitutional Amendment

The steps Shinzo Abe must take to achieve constitutional revision, and the political implications.

Japan’s Path to Constitutional Amendment

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walks to speak on the launch of a North Korean missile to reporters at his official residence in Tokyo, Japan (May 14, 2017).

Credit: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

The destination is set: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unequivocally announced his desire to achieve constitutional amendment by 2020. His proposed amendment: a new paragraph in Article 9 that validates the existence of the Japan Self-Defense Force (SDF). To that end, Abe has publicly stated that he wants his party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to come to consensus on a proposal by the end of the year so that it may be presented to the opposition parties in the Diet by January 2018. If a revised constitution is to come into effect by 2020, one can safely assume that the amendment would have to pass the Diet and reach public referendum by December 2018, since it would likely require a year between passage and promulgation, as is standard with most substantive legal revision regarding security in Japan. That leaves the Abe administration about 18 months to succeed in changing a constitution that has remained unaltered since 1947 — no small feat.

While constitutional amendment has its own policy impacts, the path to amendment, with its myriad negotiations and political requirements, will invariably have important policy implications of its own.  The push to revise the constitution will influence a host of issues, including the post-Abe LDP political landscape, the manner in which the SDF are employed and scope of their operations over the next 18 months, U.S.-Japan alliance management, timing for certain key political events such as elections and imperial abdication, and response to North Korean provocations. All of these factors play into a careful, measured approach that the Abe administration must take to achieve constitutional amendment.

Abe’s previous attempt at amendment in his first stint as prime minister (2006-2007) contributed in part to his early departure from the post, but he learned from the mistakes of his first administration. In 2006, Abe rushed headlong into the constitutional debate, eschewing other political necessities for this goal and failing to protect his administration. This time, he has remained patient, and it has paid off. Abe is in his fifth year as prime minister and has already overseen three successful national elections for the LDP (two Upper House elections and one Lower House “snap election”). Although he has not delivered the lofty promises of Abenomics, the Japanese economy has continued to enjoy modest growth over the past five quarters — the longest streak since before the Lehman Shock in 2008. Abe enjoys high approval ratings resting well above 50 percent and the LDP holds double-digit leads in public opinion over all opposition parties. Even when taking hits, Abe has shown a capacity for bouncing back from dips in public approval. His administration’s resiliency has allowed Abe to achieve much of his desired agenda in his current tenure as prime minister, and Abe believes the time is ripe for making the push to amend the Constitution and earn the fait accompli that he has long desired.

Certainly, the process is difficult. Any amendment must achieve two-thirds votes in both Houses of the Diet before earning a simple majority vote in a public referendum. Right now, the LDP enjoys a two-thirds majority in the Lower House with its coalition partner, the Komeito. However, circumstances are different in the Upper House, where the ruling coalition will have to earn buy-in from at least one opposition party that happens to support constitutional reform, namely the Japan Innovation Party (JIP), which has already begun forming its own positions on the LDP-proposed revision. In this case, the minority parties in the Diet will have a lot more negotiating power since the LDP needs them to be able to gain enough votes to meet the two-thirds requirement in both houses.

At the same time, the Abe administration has to ensure that a majority of the public voters will support the amendment in the referendum.  While initial polling suggests that a majority of the public (56 percent in a Kyodo news poll on May 21) believe an amendment to the Constitution to reflect the validity of the Self-Defense Forces is necessary, a number of respondents are unsure about the prime minister’s 2020 deadline for achieving amendment. Further, there has been and will continue to be a strong vocal minority that protests Abe’s defense agenda, and no doubt talk of amending the constitution will foment dissent from these protest groups, as well as potential external protest from regional players like China and South Korea.

Under these circumstances, the Abe administration will have to take some significant steps to establish the conditions for success. Abe has already succeeded in naming his desired revision — to have a third paragraph added to Article 9 to validate the existence of the Self-Defense Force — that aligns with LDP intent and Komeito proposals. From here, the additional steps will have further reaching implications for the administration’s decision-making and the broader Japanese political landscape.  Those steps are as follows:

Time the Vote Correctly

Many observers ask why Abe intends to push constitutional amendment so soon. The simple answer is that he is running out of time to be able to accomplish all of the other requirements necessary to enable him to realize amendment before his time as prime minister expires. There are two major national elections upcoming: the Lower House, whose term expires in December 2018; and the Upper House, which will see 50 percent of the seats up for election in the summer of 2019. Since constitutional amendment is a polarizing topic, the LDP will ensure that the vote on amendment does not affect election results.

Another important marker is imperial abdication, which is on track to take place in December 2018. As long as Emperor Akihito holds his formal position, he is bound by law not to influence politics. As soon as the quietly pacifistic Akihito steps down, however, those prohibitions will be lifted, and even a passing remark opposing constitutional revision could sway the public vote significantly and spoil Abe’s efforts. If Abe manages to complete the public referendum by December 2018, he can prevent giving an abdicated Akihito an opportunity to affect the vote — plus the abdication of the Emperor and all of the pomp that surrounds it will serve to distract from any potential controversy over the amendment.

Make Deals Within the Liberal Democratic Party

Any push for constitutional amendment is going to require buy-in from the entire party. However, the LDP is comprised of seven factions, each with their own independent agendas and ideologies that may or may not align with Abe’s. Further, each faction has its eyes set on post-Abe party leadership, and the Abe camp will have to negotiate with each of those factions as well as independents within the party to gain necessary consensus.

The results of these negotiations will first begin to manifest themselves in Cabinet and Party leadership appointments — i.e. factions will either gain or lose important government posts based on their deals — but may also become apparent in certain policy or legislative decisions that favor particular factional ideologies different from Abe’s own. These decisions will start to shine a light on who will hold power and influence after Abe steps down as prime minister, and while it is safe to assume that Abe will work to keep his home Hosoda faction in control of the LDP, it will highlight where the rest of the factions fall in the pecking order in the Post-Abe political landscape.

Make Deals With the Japan Innovation Party (JIP)

After deals within the LDP are made and a formal proposal is produced, the Abe camp will have to take it to the opposition parties for consensus building. Unlike some of the contentious defense legislation of the past few years, like the Peace and Security Legislation and Special Secrets Protection Act, where the LDP could simply ram the laws through the Diet with or without opposition party support, to amend the constitution Abe will have to build a measure of consensus. His primary target is the Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, but the proposed amendment to validate the SDF is straight from the Komeito’s policy playbook, so it is safe to assume that their support will be relatively easy to acquire.

Beyond that, Abe needs the JIP. With the current numbers in the Upper House, Abe can achieve a two-thirds majority just by adding the JIP seats to his vote count. Fortunately for Abe, the JIP is pro-amendment and has a small but stable voter base, but unfortunately for him, the JIP knows how badly Abe needs their support, and they will use that at the negotiating table. It is possible that the JIP will push to join the ruling coalition to secure Cabinet postings and seats at the table along with the Komeito for future legislative decisions. At the very least, the LDP will have to adopt a measure of JIP policy demands in order to secure their much-needed votes.

Keep Public Opinion High

Certainly, public opinion will be important ahead of any referendum on constitutional amendment, but it is also vital for laying the foundation for success. In Japan, public opinion equals political capital, and Abe will need it both to propel him through another Lower House election and to spend in negotiations with other factions and opposition parties. Abe can keep his public approval ratings high by timing elections and Cabinet reshuffles strategically, maintaining his internationalism (Abe’s foreign engagements are almost always followed by a bump in public approval), making concessions to prefectural and municipal governments (public works projects, subsidies, etc.), and avoiding scandals.

The lattermost goal has been elusive as of late, with the Moritomo and Kake School scandals, but Abe has weathered those skillfully. More dangerous are scandals originating from other members of his cabinet, as a few of his appointed ministers have fallen victim to them — most notably Yuko Obuchi and Midori Matsushima, who resigned their posts and took about ten public approval points away from the Abe administration with them. For that reason, Abe will be careful about his next Cabinet appointments. Japan observers should expect a higher number of veteran Cabinet members named to return to ministerial posts, and there will likely be a broader representation across LDP factional lines.

Play It Safe on Self-Defense Force Activity

As the Abe administration pushes to amend Article 9, it will have to be cautious about where and how it employs the Self-Defense Force. Of course, activities within Japanese territory are fair game, and even discussion of expanded capabilities like purchase of Tomahawks will not affect the constitutional debate. Where the administration will encounter friction is if it employs the SDF in new international operations or deploys forces to areas where combat is perceived to be taking place.

A big question mark here is whether South China Sea operations will be considered contentious within the debate. Certain activities are considered benign, such as multilateral exercises, but any dispatch of SDF outside of exercises in the South China Sea or Southeast Asia will likely be reactive and opportunistic, rather than proactive.

Dissolve the Lower House and Call an Effective Snap Election Before October 2018

Abe needs to reset his clock to ensure that he is able to remain prime minister through 2020. A snap election at the start of the 2017 was possible, but failure to close any deals with Russia followed by a few scandals (the Moritomo scandal, South Sudan leaks, etc.) closed any potential windows of opportunity to dissolve the Lower House. While Abe can wait until 2018, he will not want to call the snap election at the same time he is presenting the LDP proposal to opposition parties. Also, Abe cannot disrupt the national budget approval with a snap election, so that eliminates the first four to five months of 2018. Assuming the vote on constitutional amendment needs to take place in December, the LDP will not want to time a snap election right on top of it. As such, there are three potential windows for snap election — this summer, December 2017, or summer 2018 — each with their own opportunities and pitfalls.

Use the United States for Domestic and International Messaging

The United States plays different roles in Abe’s push for constitutional revision domestically and internationally. Domestically, the Abe administration has painted the United States military with the so-called “burden” narrative (in Japanese, futan) which, simply put, is that hosting U.S. military forces in Japan comes at a cost to the Japanese people. While the term has been around since the 2005 2+2 statement, it reached new meaning when Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga earned a second responsibility as the Futan Keigen Tantō Daijin, or burden reduction minister, which cemented the Japanese government position on the matter.

On the surface, this narrative is meant to placate domestic populaces that host U.S. military forces in their municipalities, and serves as justification for additional subsidies or other government support programs — all of which are important for maintaining public opinion and for supporting local LDP candidates in elections. Dig a little deeper and the burden narrative reinforces the notion that the U.S. military, while supporting Japanese security, is forcing the Japanese people to bear a burden that they would not have to if they had their own military (or so the logic goes). By reinforcing the burden narrative, it validates the necessity for a more independent Self-Defense Force (or even a full-fledged organic military).

Internationally, the tenor is completely the opposite. Every opportunity Abe has, he reminds the world that the U.S.-Japan alliance has never been stronger. So why the duplicity? Of course, Japan still relies upon its mutual security treaty with the United States to guarantee its security, so maintaining this relationship is paramount. Specific to the push for constitutional revision, the Abe administration needs U.S. backing in the face of other regional players — namely China and South Korea — who will likely take strong exception to the move. China may paint it as escalatory, while the push may harm political relations with South Korea, which is still sensitive to historical issues with Japan. In order to get American backing, the Abe administration will likely sell the constitutional amendment as a means to have a more robust and proactive SDF, maybe even expressing that the government will be able to use the constitutional change to justify busting the 1 percent of GDP cap on defense spending — a clear goal of the Trump administration for its allies.

As a result, the Abe administration has and will continue to assert to international audiences that the alliance has never been stronger, while simultaneously lamenting with the domestic populace over the burden of having to host U.S. forces. The best opportunity to co-opt the United States in this message is with the joint statement that will come out of the 2+2 meeting scheduled to occur before the end of the year. The United States government should be prepared to see the phrases “alliance has never been stronger” and “burden reduction” (or the gentler “impact mitigation”) terminology in Japanese proposals for the joint statement.

Keep Selling the North Korean Threat

One of the best ways to curry public support for defense initiatives is by broadcasting a threat that must be addressed. The LDP’s fundamental argument for constitutional amendment is that the increasingly severe security environment demands a change to an antiquated clause in Article 9. In order to reinforce that argument, Abe need only highlight the threats that exist. As a result, whether or not a North Korean provocation is significant, the Abe administration will continue to get in front of the cameras every time an incident occurs to remind the public of the dire threat that North Korea poses.  Observers and decision-makers should expect strong political reactions from Japan to every North Korean provocation, big or small, until the revision is complete.

Getting to constitutional amendment will take time and some deft political maneuvering. Certainly, it is a long road until 2020 that is sure to have some twists and turns.  In order to stay the course, Abe is poised to take the steps outlined above, and in doing so, there will be further reaching policy implications for Japanese politics and security practice. The post-Abe LDP political landscape will become clearer, use of the Self-Defense Forces outside of Japan will be tempered, the United States will continue to receive mixed messaging from the Japanese government, timing for certain key political events will shift to accommodate the constitutional amendment schedule, and strong political responses will follow all North Korean provocations. All of this will make for a noteworthy few years until the world sees whether or not Abe is able to pull off his long-desired goal and amend a constitution that has been untouchable for 70 years.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the former deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces, Japan, where he was part of the team that drafted the new 2015 Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation. Michael is also a graduate of Mansfield, an East-West Center Fellow and a military veteran with two tours to Afghanistan.