Sailors in the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force stand at attention aboard the JS KAGA DDH-184 as it arrives at Tanjung Priok port in Indonesia on September 18, 2018. Photo: Andrew Lotulung/NurPhoto)
Sailors in the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force stand at attention aboard the JS KAGA DDH-184 as it arrives at Tanjung Priok port in Indonesia on September 18, 2018. Photo: Andrew Lotulung/NurPhoto)

Sometimes politics is personal.  And for Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who is headed for a third term, revising Japan’s Constitution is just that.  Indeed, some might say it’s more an obsession given Abe’s longstanding belief the ‘US-imposed’ Constitution was both unfair and unsuited to Japanese society.

As for Abe’s chances of success?  He’s got a fair hand, but success is not guaranteed.  He’ll first need to obtain two-thirds support from the Diet’s upper and lower houses.  And then he must win majority approval in a national public referendum.

While Abe nominally has the support to clear both houses of the Diet given the Liberal Democratic Party’s large majorities – he still needs cooperation from his coalition partner, Komeito, and some small minority parties.

A former senior Japanese defense official noted that Abe’s main LDP rival, Shigeru Ishiba and his sizeable faction might resist. Ishiba has been critical of Abe’s specific revisions – though not the idea of changing the Constitution – and there is no love lost between the two men. And the LDP’s coalition partner, the ‘pacifist’ Komeito, might object – even if it has found the allure of being part of a ruling coalition preferable to years of principled – but ineffectual – opposition.

In Abe’s favor, however, the opposition is in disarray. But they will still try to stop him – claiming World War III will erupt if the Constitution is revised.  It will be quite a show. Consider how the opposition recently savaged Abe (and his wife) with corruption and cronyism charges that were Lilliputian by Japanese standards.  Expect a Japanese version of Trump derangement syndrome on display when Abe makes his move.

Assuming Abe’s plan passes the Diet, he might find the public a harder sell.

Most people just aren’t as interested in the idea as is Abe.  They have more immediate concerns, such as pensions, jobs, caring for aging relatives, and suchlike.  To many Japanese, spending money on a Constitutional referendum is frivolous – especially when Japan has done rather well with the existing one.

Abe will need to make his case to the public – and make it clearly. He’ll have to explain what the revisions are and why they are necessary.  If he does this correctly, he’ll improve his odds of success.  Even more than Japan’s political class, Japan’s citizenry – much of which still read newspapers – is thoughtful and commonsensical when it comes to defense – when things are explained to them.

And the former defense official suggests Abe might make use of nationalist sentiment created by the new Emperor’s enthronement in 2019 and the 2020 Olympics to help ease through the Constitutional revisions.

What exactly does Abe want to change?

Abe wants to include a paragraph in Article 9 of the Constitution that specifically recognizes – and thus legitimizes – the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF) and its role in national defense. Article 9’s plain language as currently written, “…land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” allows an argument that the JSDF is unconstitutional – as it does indeed resemble ‘armed forces.’  This has been a political distraction for decades and led to a weak JSDF that is not even the sum of parts.

Notably, and somewhat confusingly, Abe’s proposal leaves unchanged existing Article 9 language about renouncing war as a sovereign right and prohibiting the threat or use of force to resolve international disputes.

So it seems the Prime Minister’s has settled on something of a ‘common denominator’ likely to win maximum political and public support.  This is a considerable retreat from earlier ideas floated that ‘politicized’ the Emperor’s role as head of the Japanese state, and also included a bit about citizens’ obligations to the state.  This was a little too close to pre-World War II Japan thinking – even for some LDP politicians, if not Abe himself.

How would the Constitutional revision change the JSDF and what it does?

Very little.

The defense-related provisions of the Constitution have long-since been reinterpreted out of any connection to the original plain language.  The Japanese government has often used Article 9 and the ‘peace Constitution’ as an excuse for Japan to avoid doing anything it doesn’t want to do.

Yet, despite the ‘American imposed’ Constitution, Japan has always been able to do whatever it needs (or wants) to do, and the reinterpretation of ‘collective self-defense’ Abe pushed through several years ago made things even easier.

Even with the Constitution ‘as is’, Abe has already incrementally increased defense spending after a decade of decreases, and the JSDF is out-and-about in the region and globally more than ever – even if these are modest efforts in absolute terms.  And there’s recent talk of the JSDF joining the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai.

Change Article 9 and Japan will be as careful as ever when it comes to deploying or using the JSDF.  The Japanese defense budget will not increase dramatically and JSDF services will still lack the needed ‘joint’ capability.  As defense analyst, Jun Kitamura puts it:  “Each branch of JSDF will continue to protect (their) own branch’s interests.”

Recruiting JSDF personnel will remain an ongoing and increasing challenge as the population shrinks.  And hardware procurement will continue to focus on ‘shiny object’ silver bullet systems, rather being based on a comprehensive assessment of what Japan’s defense requires.

And despite opposition warning of calamity if the Constitution is altered, the JSDF is not going to go on the rampage.  It hasn’t got the people, hardware, or equipment – nor does anyone in GOJ (much less the JSDF) have any interest in doing so.

Curiously, Chinese and North Korean threats still have not concentrated minds in Tokyo.

Defense analyst Kitamura observes that if the Constitution is revised, Japanese politicians and bureaucrats will still ‘naively’ see the Americans as the guarantor of Japanese defense – so it does matter much to them if “JSDF lacks real fighting capabilities.”

But here’s where Abe’s plan might make it a difference:  It will help make the JSDF a respected profession.  The Japanese military has been belittled and humiliated by Japan’s ‘official’ and political classes for decades – to the point service members seldom if ever wear their uniforms off base, and terms of service are practically serf-like considering what is being asked of JSDF service members.

Change this, starting with Constitutional recognition of the JSDF and there just might be gradual beneficial effects on the JSDF and its capabilities.

What are the implications for the region (and beyond) if Abe pulls this off?

As for the Americans, they’ll find the Japanese no more or less cooperative than before the revisions.

The Chinese will howl as is their wont – seeking to score political points – while keeping pressure on Japan as the PLA builds into a superior force that’s able to dominate Japan – the one regional obstacle to PRC control of East Asia.

The Koreans?  The Japanese bring out the worst in the Koreans, no matter what, so they will complain too.

Elsewhere in the region, nobody will much care – or even notice.

Indeed, if Abe is able to change the Constitution, a year later people (outside and inside Japan) will mostly forget what they were complaining about.

So, Abe has his work cut out for him.  It’s debatable if it’s worth the effort to revise the Constitution, but he’s going to try.  As the American actor John Wayne is said to have said – even if he didn’t – “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”