Japan coalition divided as prime minister seeks greater conflict powers

Critics say Shinzo Abe’s initiative would alter Japan’s constitutional framework

Japan’s government, led by prime minister Shinzo Abe,  is riding high in the polls thanks to the perceived success of his expansionary economic policies. Photograph: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Japan’s government, led by prime minister Shinzo Abe, is riding high in the polls thanks to the perceived success of his expansionary economic policies. Photograph: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Sat, Jun 21, 2014, 01:00

For decades, Japanese conservatives have wanted the country to shrug off the constraints of its 1947 pacifist constitution.

Prime minister Shinzo Abe publicly laid out his philosophy nearly 10 years ago. His book, Beautiful Japan, lamented that the post-war American occupation had militarily defanged his country.

“The initial intention of the occupation force was to tie Japan hand and foot so that it would never emerge as a great power,” he wrote.

Abe has the best chance of any post-war Japanese leader to achieve this momentous goal. His government is riding high in the polls thanks to the perceived success of his expansionary economic policies.

Political opposition to Abe’s Liberal Democrats (LDP) is emaciated and divided. The rise of China has convinced some Japan must recalibrate to prepare for future conflict.

Frustratingly for Abe, however, his coalition government is saddled with a reluctant partner. The dovish New Komeito is supported by millions of Japanese precisely because of its pacifist credentials. Abe initially planned to rewrite the so-called pacifist clause, article 9, which bans the use of force to settle international disputes, but he was forced to retreat. He is now attempting a controversial “reinterpretation” of article 9, to allow Japan to come to the aid of its US military partner.

‘Collective defence’

Abe’s critics say the reinterpretation to allow what he calls “collective defence” is a legal slight of hand that would alter Japan’s entire constitutional framework, which has stipulated for 70 years the nation would maintain armed forces only for defence.

“The prime minister could not change the constitution legitimately so he is attempting what amounts to a legal coup d’etat,” says Hiroyuki Konishi, a member of the opposition Democratic Party.

Konishi says Abe’s famously loose-tongued deputy, Taro Aso, let slip the government’s strategy last year when he seemed to jokingly praise the Nazi’s successful attempt to quietly change Germany’s liberal Weimer constitution. “Why don’t we learn from that technique?” Aso asked.

Abe’s supporters say change is long overdue. “Japan is not pacifist, it is isolationist,” says Narushige Michishita, a defence analyst. “We have been trying to convince our neighbours that we are pacifist by doing nothing. That can’t continue forever.”

New Komeito’s role in this political drama puzzles observers. Backed by Japan’s most powerful Buddhist sect, the eight-million strong Soka Gakkai, Komeito has consistently delivered a huge chunk of Japan’s conservative countryside to the LDP.

The core of New Komeito support is millions of staunchly pacifist housewives. They say their political wing is protecting the peace clause by acting as a “brake” on the LDP. Komeito leader, Natsuo Yamaguchi, dubs it “an opposition party within the ruling party”.

Internal sparring

In practice, however, months of sparring inside the coalition appear to be whittling down the junior partner’s resolve. Political insiders say the LDP has repeatedly tried to smuggle clauses into discussions on the constitution, expanding its interpretation of collective defence.

Abe is pushing hard for an agreement before the end of the current Diet session next week. One possibility is a “limited” constitutional reinterpretation. The compromise would allow Japanese armed forces to exercise force in cases where an attack on another country threatens either Japan or its citizens, such as the outbreak of conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

Many constitutional experts want New Komeito to reject this interpretation, saying it opens the door to a much wider use of force. “The government will be able to reinterpret the constitution in any way it wants rather than being constrained by it,” says Koiichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo’s Sophia University. The stakes are so high that some expected the coalition to disintegrate. For now, Komeito appears to be sticking it out with the LDP. But the latest reports say the two parties may have to shelve agreement until later in the summer.

Pacifism vs conflict

Whatever happens, Komeito seems to be caught in an impossible bind between the demands of the LDP and the wishes of its supporters. Ending Japan’s pacifism brings conflict with China one step closer, says Konishi. “That’s a hard deal to sell to anyone.”