On October 22, Japan’s electorate handed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a major electoral victory in the Lower House. Despite initial fears that a resurgent opposition party—the Party of Hope—could outflank Abe from his right, his coalition secured enough seats to protect its two-thirds majority. Observers immediately began speculating about the impact of the vote on constitutional reform, specifically changes to Article 9’s so-called peace clause, which renounces war and the maintenance of “war potential.” Amending the constitution has long been an electoral plank of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and Abe himself proposed doing just that in debates leading up to the vote. While it is true that parties in favor of revision secured enough seats to pass the legislative hurdle needed to revise Japan’s basic law, numerical advantage alone does not tell the whole story. Japan’s road to constitutional revision is much more complicated.
Some 70 years old, Japan’s constitution is the oldest unamended constitution in the world. It was drafted by U.S. officers during the Allied occupation of Japan immediately following World War II. That fact has never sat well with conservatives in Japan. Abe’s own LDP has aimed to revise the constitution since 1955, but no government has ever actually tried. Not only do constitutional changes require approval by two-thirds of both houses in Japan’s legislature, they also require a public referendum, in which revisions can pass with a simple majority. For decades, that hurdle has seemed too high to clear.
In advance of October’s election, many Japanese political analysts argued that constitutional revision would quickly follow an LDP victory. Such an outcome, it was suggested, would bolster Abe’s standing in the party and boost his chances of a third term as the LDP’s president in next year’s leadership contest—which would grant him until September 2021 to pursue his agenda, including a revision of the constitution.
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