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Shinzo Abe’s Fight for Constitutional Reform Lives On

Credit: US Embassy in Toyko

Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, was assassinated on July 8th while campaigning in Nara, Japan. His assassination was tragic and shocking for a country with such little political violence and strict gun laws, but also a country and a world in political turmoil.

Abe’s legacy reverberates throughout Japan and the rest of the world. After redefining Japan’s status as a largely neutral country, Abe formed new security alliances across the Indo-Pacific to combat China’s belligerent tendencies. His diplomatic efforts were revolutionary for Japan, and he successfully broke through to two distracted US administrations, in addition to Australian and Indian loyalties to China in favor for security alliances with Japan.

As the country mourned the death of a political powerhouse, Abe’s party won a general election on Sunday, with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida vowing to uphold democracy and defend free and fair elections. Now the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party is declaring its intent to follow through with Abe’s vision of constitutional reform. The current Japanese constitution defines the nation as a neutral global actor-meaning it renounces war and conflicts with Abe’s diplomatic efforts to create security alliances. Adopted in 1947 under Allied occupation, the constitution required that Japan would never again engage in war as a means to resolve international conflicts. Essentially, it limits the role of the emperor to a symbolic head of state but left the issue of succession ambiguous, reduced the role of the imperial military to the civilian-controlled Self-Defense Forces, and enumerated certain rights for women.

The 1947 constitution has withstood numerous tests and has been interpreted regularly according to the Japanese leadership’s needs and interests. The military first started evolving in the 1970’s with the first National Defense Program outline, and negotiations with the US led to the 1978 Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation. These guidelines stated that Japan “will possess defense capability on an appropriate scale with in the scope necessary for self-defense” and outline that scope and possible actions of the Japanese SDF in conjunction with US Forces in response to an armed attack against Japan. Later in 2014, Shinzo Abe reinterpreted the contentious Article 9 of the constitution as “allowing for ‘collective self-defense,’” which expanded the SDF’s ability to prepare for and respond to security threats.

Abe specifically aimed to remove Article 9 from the constitution, as it requires Japan to rely too heavily on the United States’ virtually obsolete commitment to defend Japan and South Korea from its belligerent neighbors. For decades, the defense budget has been limited by law and since 1987 by force of political norms to just 1% of Japan’s GDP, all of which increases the country’s defense vulnerabilities as technologies advance, the US debates its military commitment, and China’s immense regional and global power multiplies.

Constitutional reform efforts may be a long time coming, but they are likely to take time to even be successful. First, while the LDP secured a two-thirds majority in both houses necessary to push forward legislation and amendments, the support for revision is not guaranteed. Most of the Japanese Parliament seems to agree that constitutional reform is desperately needed, though they lack a consensus on how to amend it. If any amendments survive a vote in both houses of the Diet, Japan’s highest legislative body, it must be confirmed by a referendum, which presents its own obstacle to reforms. The public is markedly less enthusiastic than the Diet to adopt any constitutional change, fearing that any efforts would undermine democracy in Japan rather than strengthen and protect it. Prime Minister Kishida is faced with two additional imminent crises regarding national security and economic stability, which may further delay any progress on constitutional revision. Regardless of if and when a revision can happen in Japan, the assassination of Shinzo Abe reignited a fervent political discourse on how Japan can define itself and position itself on the world stage – a permanent vestige of Abe’s legacy.

Written by Abby Noyes, Programs and Outreach Associate

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