The costs of constitutional reform in Japan

The costs of constitutional reform in Japan
Published: 7:45 PM, October 2, 2017

Throughout Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s political career, constitutional revision has always been a top priority for him. Mr Abe has consistently focused on revising Article 9 of the constitution in a way that would allow Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defence.

This has been very important to Mr Abe because he feels the existing provision continues to bring into question the constitutionality of the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) and the kinds of activities in which the JSDF is allowed to engage.

By renouncing the right of belligerency and prohibiting Japan from possessing ‘land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential’, Article 9 has imposed heavy constraints on the way in which the Japanese government can use the JSDF. A very divisive debate emerges whenever the JSDF tries to do something — anything — at home or abroad beyond a limited remit.

This debate has been particularly contentious whenever it involves issues surrounding Japan’s self-imposed ban on exercising the right of collective self-defence (shuudan-teki jiei ken).

Simply put, a country’s right of collective self-defence is its prerogative to consider that ‘an attack on one is an attack on all’ (in respect of allies) and respond accordingly, including through the use of military force.

Because the Japanese government long considered this right to be something Japan possesses but cannot exercise, the JSDF’s ability to co-operate with other countries’ militaries has been limited.

Mr Abe has been a strong advocate for revising Article 9 in a way that would allow the JSDF greater flexibility in its operations, including relaxing the severe restriction imposed by the ban on the right of collective self-defence.

When he first served as Japan’s prime minster between 2006–2007, Mr Abe convened an advisory panel — commonly referred to as the Yanai Commission — which recommended ‘four scenarios’ under which Japan should be allowed to exercise that right. But Mr Abe had already stepped down by the time the panel issued its interim recommendations in April 2008 and no further action was taken on them by his successors.

Mr Abe picked up this issue again when he returned to power in December 2012. When asked about constitutional revision in his first press conference, in December 2012, he made specific reference to the recommendations submitted by the 2006 advisory panel and expressed his desire to reexamine them with renewed vigour.

Since then Mr Abe has taken steady steps to move constitutional revision forward. To lay the groundwork for revision, he restarted the Yanai Commission’s deliberations.

The commission issued its final report in May 2014 and recommended that the ban on the right of collective self-defence be lifted. In response, the Abe administration issued a cabinet decision ruling that Japan can exercise its right to collective self-defence under a limited set of circumstances.

It passed a legislative package — the Peace and Security Legislation — expanding the scope of the JSDF’s authorised activities, which went into force in March 2016.

Mr Abe’s strong desire for constitutional revision, backed by the decisions he has made since December 2012, have come at a cost.

Most obviously, Mr Abe’s decision to put his political capital into pushing this issue forward has left other pressing domestic issues unattended. From economic revitalisation to tax reform, pension reform, care of the elderly and promoting gender equality — including support for two working-parent households — Mr Abe has launched a number of initiatives with much fanfare. But few concrete results can be identified.

In particular, reform of the tax system, as well as pensions, health care, and other entitlement programs urgently require the government’s attention.

These systems were created when Japan had a growing population and healthy birth rate. As society continues to age — close to 40 per cent of the population will be 65 years or older by 2065 — these systems will become fiscally unsustainable if they are not restructured, particularly given the government’s already heavy debt burden.

But reforming any of these systems is politically difficult. Reform inevitably means either raising taxes, cutting back on entitlement programs, or a combination of both. By choosing to spend his political capital on the national security agenda, including constitutional revision, Mr Abe has largely passed responsibility for finding the solutions to these highly complex problems to his successors.

Less obvious but more important is the approach Abe took to push his agenda. Taking full advantage of the majority his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)–Komeito ruling coalition maintains in both houses of the Japanese Diet to approve politically controversial bills including the Peace and Security Legislation and one recent anti-conspiracy law, if necessary, has hardened the attitudes of opposition parties. As a result, debate on national security issues on the Diet floor has turned into verbal sparring between the two sides over what is legal and what is illegal, leaving other fundamental issues undiscussed.

Issues such as how far Japan is willing to leverage the deployment of the JSDF to achieve its national security policy goals vis-à-vis other countries, and how elected leaders can maintain civilian control of the military (JSDF) while ensuring the JSDF’s political neutrality, were hardly discussed on the Diet floor. Unless Abe dramatically changes his approach when his government submits a draft proposal to revise the constitution, it is hard to see a thoughtful debate on any of these issues taking place in the Diet next time around.

Mr Abe’s obsession with making the JSDF a constitutional entity by revising Article 9 may also force his successors to engage in increasingly complicated verbal contortions to justify JSDF activities.

Hoping to gain support from those unsure about revision, Mr Abe currently proposes to amend Article 9 by adding a clause explicitly defining the JSDF as an ‘organisation for national defence’.

But doing so without amending other clauses would continue to force the government to justify the JSDF as ‘an organisation for national defence’ that is not land, naval or air forces. This could be more restrictive than what the JSDF is already authorised to do, especially overseas.

Although the Abe government’s support rate improved after the cabinet reshuffle on August 3, many opinion polls, including Yomiuri Shimbun, still indicate an overall trend of less people supporting the cabinet. Any constitutional revision Mr Abe tries to push will likely come at a cost.

The constitutional change that Mr Abe is eyeing is likely to mean that even after such revision, a continuing lack of consensus on how Japan should use the JSDF, persistent sharp political divisions over this issue, and lack of thoughtful debate on national security issues in the Diet will persist.

It also means that it will come at the cost of the government’s ability to address more pressing issues that have real impact on Japanese people, with very little actual change. EAST ASIA FORUM


Yuki Tatsumi is the Director of Japan Program at Stimson Center in Washington, DC. She also concurrently serves as non-resident Senior Fellow at Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.