Abe may not be able to revise Constitution next year
On May 3, Japan observed the 71st anniversary of its Constitution that went into effect in 1947. Despite strong opposition from people at home and abroad, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is eager to amend the Constitution that, in his words, was imposed by the United States on Japan after the end of World War II.
An opinion poll conducted by Kyodo News in Japan last month showed 61 percent of the respondents were opposed to any constitutional revisions while Abe is in office, compared with 38 percent in favor.
On May 3 last year, Abe gave a call for specifying the Self-Defense Forces in the Constitution, arguing that the lack of reference to Japanese armed forces in the Constitution leaves room for them to be seen as "unconstitutional".
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has come up with a proposal on how to amend the Constitution in line with Abe's wishes. Under the LDP's plan, the first paragraph of Article 9 which renounces war and the second paragraph which prohibits Japan from possessing any "war potential" would be retained, but a new clause stating the provisions of the preceding paragraphs do not preclude the country from taking "necessary" self-defense measures would be added.
To make the new clause in Article 9 relevant, the Japanese government has defined the SDF as an organization with strength "below war potential". And Abe has claimed that the proposed revision of Article 9 will bring "no change" to the role and nature of the SDF.
The Abe administration has already substantially eased the constitutional limits on the "armed forces". Japan's Constitution allows the SDF to act only in self-defense, but the national security legislation that took effect in 2015 allows Japan to respond to attacks on its allies as well. Japan will now expand its role in United Nations peacekeeping operations, increase contingency planning with the US, and explore new areas of defense cooperation with "like-minded states".
Still, the Japanese government is considering arming the SDF with highly aggressive weapons, moving further away from the country's defense-only policy. It is mulling modifying its largest helicopter destroyer, the Izumo, so that US stealth fighters F-35B can land on and take off from its flight deck.
And US defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., according to Reuters, plans to offer Japan a stealth fighter design based on its export-banned F-22 Raptor and advanced F-35 Lightning II aircraft. The proposed aircraft is said to combine the F-22 and F-35 and "could be superior to both of them".
Japanese lawmakers in favor of a constitutional revision have two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament, a threshold for initiating an amendment to the Constitution. However, they may lose this advantage.
The election to the upper house is scheduled for the summer of 2019, when half of its 242 seats will be contested. Currently, the LDP, Komeito and two small parties that favor constitutional revision hold the necessary two-thirds majority in the upper house.
Since 69 seats held by LDP members will be up for grabs, it has to win something close to this number to hold on to the two-thirds advantage. And wining a number of seats in the mid-sixties range will be no easy task for the LDP, which won only 55 in the most recent upper house election in 2016. With this in mind, Abe may well push to get a set of amendments approved by the Diet before the summer 2019 election.
Abe wants the amendment to be adopted in 2020. But he may find it difficult to set a date for a national referendum because of a series of big events next year, from Emperor Akihito's abdication to the G20 Summit and the Rugby World Cup.
Opinion polls show no clear rise in popular support for constitutional revision. So even if a set of amendments is approved by the Diet, it is not certain they will be ratified in the referendum.
The author is China Daily Tokyo bureau chief.