Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, May 2016.
TORU HANAI / REUTERS

On July 10, Japanese voters went to the polls to choose representatives to fill half the seats in the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan's legislature. The election broke the mold in a number of respects. For the first time in Japan's history, 18- and 19-year-olds were allowed to vote. Also unprecedented: when the ballots were counted, two sitting cabinet members lost their seats in the upper house and a record number of female lawmakers had been elected to the chamber. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition, made up of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the pacifist party Komeito, emerged victorious, expanding its majority in the 242-member body by 11 seats. 

Of all these developments, the most significant is the edge gained by Abe's coalition. Critics argue the prime minister might use his newfound advantage to attempt to loosen Article 9 of Japan's constitution—the so-called peace clause—which bans the country from waging war and has been the cornerstone of Tokyo's foreign policy for decades. In the weeks since the election, it is this possibility that has drawn the most attention from foreign observers. Yet the road from Abe's electoral victory to constitutional change is not as straight or certain as many Japan watchers have suggested.

Although is likely that Abe will pursue some constitutional revisions, it still unclear whether he will take on the challenge of revising Article 9. For Abe's government to alter or eliminate the peace clause, however, it would have to draw support from parties outside his governing coalition, reconcile their competing constitutional visions, and secure the approval of the Japanese people. That would be a lengthy, complicated process. If the ruling coalition manages to complete it, it will be a testament to the vibrant state of Japan’s democracy.

Near the Diet building in Tokyo, July 2009.
YURIKO NAKAO / REUTERS

THE ROAD TO REVISION

Japan’s constitution, which was drafted during the U.S. occupation and adopted in 1947, has never been amended. For decades, critics on Japan’s right have wanted to revise what they consider to be the constitution's foreign impositions, and those on the left have sought to defend the document's integrity, particularly that of Article 9, which outlaws “land, sea, and air forces” and other “war potential” and promises that Japan will "forever renounce war as a sovereign right." 

Today's constitutional revisionists, primarily in the LDP and a few smaller parties, want to amend a number of areas in the constitution. Not all of them want to modify Article 9, but those that do seek to create a clear legal basis for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, which are designed only for defensive purposes. Pure antirevisionists, primarily in the Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party, oppose any changes to the constitution and contend that the mere existence of the SDF has already jeopardized Article 9’s integrity. Komeito and the Democratic Party, Japan’s largest opposition group, have staked out a middle ground: they want to preserve the peace clause but are open to other constitutional changes.   

Abe has been a leading proponent of constitutional revision for years, and this month's election has in theory granted him the ability to gather the votes needed to achieve his long-held dream. Doing so, however, will be an unwieldy process.

The prime minister cannot initiate the revision process on his own. Instead, at least 100 lawmakers in the Diet’s lower house, the House of Representatives, or at least 50 lawmakers in the House of Councillor can do so by submitting a bill outlining potential constitutional amendments. To pass, that bill must then secure the votes of at least two-thirds of the legislators in both houses. In the Diet's lower house, Abe's coalition already holds the needed supermajority. But despite its recent win in the House of Councillors and the surprise addition of a formerly independent legislator to the LDP’s ranks, Abe's coalition is still 15 lawmakers short of the 162 seats needed to secure a two-thirds majority in that body. To fill that gap, the coalition will have to secure the support of some smaller parties. The Initiatives from Osaka (Osaka Ishin no Kai), a regional party, has indicated that it is willing to support constitutional revisions, but even if Abe manages to coopt all of its 12 lawmakers in the upper house, his coalition will still be three seats short of a supermajority. So Abe would then have to turn to the Party for Japanese Kokoro (Nihon no Kokoro wo Taisetsu ni Suru To), a conservative party with just three lawmakers in the House of Councillors. To revise the constitution, in other words, the prime minister will have to persuade 162 lawmakers from four different parties to vote unanimously on a number of possible amendments.

That is an especially tough proposition because none of those parties agree on how the constitution should be revised. (Even lawmakers within the ruling LDP and Komeito differ on that subject.) Their divergent visions make clear that, despite the media and the Japanese opposition's focus on Article 9, the clause is just one among many potential subjects for revision.

Japan Self-Defense Forces soldiers drilling in Kagoshima Prefecture, May 2014.
Japan Self-Defense Forces soldiers drilling in Kagoshima Prefecture, May 2014.
KYODO / REUTERS

The LDP has called for a number of changes to Article 9, among them one that would create a new National Defense Force, establishing a legal basis for Japan’s forces.  The LDP also supports the establishment of a clause that would grant the prime minister emergency powers during national crises; provisions that would back environmental protection and fiscal discipline; and changes that would cut the votes required for further constitutional revisions from a supermajority in the Diet to a simple one. 

Komeito, on the other hand, is far more reluctant to revise the constitution—the electoral platform the party put out before this month's election did not mention the subject—and staunchly opposes revising Article 9. As for Abe's other potential partners, Initiatives from Osaka similarly avoided the issue of Article 9 in its electoral platform, focusing instead on the provision of free education, the establishment of a constitutional court, and the restructuring of the relationship between prefectural authorities and the central government. The Party for Japanese Kokoro, on the other hand, has called for revising the constitution wholesale: it wants to enshrine a right to self-defense based on the UN Charter, make the prime minister the commander-in-chief of the military, clarify the relationship between the Diet's two houses, establish a number of new individual rights for Japanese citizens, and (like the LDP) relax the requirements for future constitutional revisions.  

A revision to the peace clause, or any other controversial amendment, is unlikely to pass a public referendum.

Before a draft can be voted on, lawmakers in each party must agree on the revisions they seek, and then the parties must negotiate points of common ground in the constitutional commissions in both of the legislature’s houses. Only then can lawmakers finalize a formal draft to introduce for debate in the Diet. The compromises required by that process will both narrow and water down the issues the parties seeking constitutional revisions will support. Changes to Article 9 will face the most scrutiny, mostly owing to Komeito's opposition to revising that clause.

Finally, and perhaps most important, each constitutional revision endorsed by the Diet must be approved separately by a majority of voters in a national referendum. Opinion polls suggest that the Japanese public generally opposes revising Article 9: a March poll by the conservative newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun found that 61 percent of Japanese opposed revising the peace clause. But when Japanese voters are asked to consider constitutional reforms more generally, they tend to be more supportive: a post-election poll by the same newspaper, for example, found that 70 percent of Japanese citizens had positive expectations for a potential Diet debate over constitutional revisions. Because Japanese pollsters do not survey public opinion toward specific constitutional revisions apart from those that would affect Article 9, it is hard to say what the public would think of the other revisions the country’s major parties have endorsed. The bottom line is that a revision to the peace clause, or any other controversial amendment, is unlikely to pass a public referendum.

Public discussions of constitutional revisions in Japan tend to shed more heat than light, eliding the many democratic safeguards that will shape the process of reform. Despite Abe’s newfound advantage, the road to constitutional change remains long and difficult. If Japan revises its constitution after lengthy debates in the Diet and a national referendum, it will not mean that the country is returning to militarism: it will be a sign of a healthy democracy in action. 

  • JEFFREY W. HORNUNG is a Fellow for the Security and Foreign Affairs Program at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA and Project Director of the Maritime Awareness Project.
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