Last weekend’s Upper House election result has armed the ruling Liberal Democratic Party with the parliamentary numbers needed to bring about controversial changes to the Japanese constitution. It does not mean the dropping of the constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 is imminent or inevitable, but in parliamentary terms for the first time it has become possible.
The election was important in other ways, too. For the first time, 18- and 19-year-olds were given the vote. Figures are not yet available to determine the level of participation by this new cohort of young voters, but the overall turnout to the polls was a miserable 55%. That is, almost half of eligible voters did not bother to take part.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a tireless campaigner, and again this time he traversed the country making numerous speeches in support of LDP candidates. There was a desperation about his effort that seemed to be absent among Opposition politicians––and Japanese voters tend to reward the competitor who tries hardest (and, some say, ‘dirtiest’ or ‘trickiest’).
Abe framed the election as a referendum on his government’s economic policies, so-called ‘Abenomics’. It was too early, he said, to declare ‘Abenomics’ a failure: ‘Don’t waver now, we must press on even harder’, he argued. Though this was his first implicit admission that results have been disappointing, people seem to have adopted the view that ‘we might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb’. The fact remains economic growth is anaemic, at best, public-sector debt is still out of control, and wage rates are depressed––despite several favourable factors for Japan in recent times including low commodity and energy prices and a surge in international tourism (the rise in the value of the yen has been a countervailing force).
Most of the extra tourists are Chinese. Although Japanese benefit from the spending of these visitors, increased contact between the two peoples does not seem to be wearing away deep-seated prejudices. Visiting Japan during the election campaign, I was taken aback by the many anti-Chinese comments I heard dropped into conversations, about their supposed criminality, uncouthness, and untrustworthiness. During coverage of the opening of Shanghai Disneyland (a big story in Japan, which stands to lose custom for Tokyo Disneyland), a Japanese reporter joked with the studio presenter on air about Chinese visitors to the theme park being so ignorant they did not know how to work automated devices in the public toilets.
The main Opposition parties combined forces in the Upper House election, hoping to convince voters they represented a coherent, credible force. They framed the contest around the issue of defending the Constitution. But they failed to cut through and seemed ineffectual alongside Abe’s electioneering juggernaut. Given the inherent mistrust of China, and alarm over North Korea’s ballistic missile program, Japanese voters held back from giving the Opposition parties the necessary numbers to block the LDP’s way.
A factor that played into the result was public anger over the bad conduct of Americans stationed at defence bases in Japan. A highly publicised murder by a base worker in Okinawa that occurred during the campaign, and renewed agitation for the removal of American bases, had the inevitable effect of focusing minds on the need for greater Japanese self-reliance. Abe did not need to say a word against the constraints of Article 9––and, indeed, he steered clear of the issue during the election––the situation spoke for itself.
Japan’s post-war Constitution has never been amended since it came into force in 1947 during the Allied Occupation. It has long been LDP policy to replace the American-drafted document with one ‘truly Japanese’ that would allow the nation to exercise ‘normal’ prerogatives for securing its defence. To change the basic law, a proposal needs a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet. The LDP and its coalition partner have now achieved this goal. The coalition partner in the LDP-led government is the Komeito, a Buddhist-oriented party, which in the past has tended to resist proposals to change Article 9. Under the Komeito’s present leadership, however, it is not clear that it would absolutely stand in Abe’s way.
The main obstacle to constitutional change remains the need to put any proposal voted out of the Diet to a national referendum, in which it would require a simple majority. Opinion polls indicate that most Japanese remain opposed to the abolition of Article 9. It will not, therefore, be easy for the Abe government to press ahead quickly with its agenda––to appear too eager, indeed, could prove fatal to its plans. Nevertheless, it now has the parliamentary numbers to take the issue forward. With a tame news media largely in the thrall of Abe’s personal popularity and an electorate seemingly willing to sit on the sidelines, it can be argued that conditions in Japan are ripening towards constitutional change within the foreseeable future.
Walter Hamilton is a former ABC Tokyo correspondent