Japan's Special Defense Forces could become more offensive with a change of the constitution. Image: Facebook

TOKYO – Despite widespread reporting that the general election for the Lower House of the Japanese Diet on Halloween was a mighty non-event, significant shifts are underway in the world’s third-largest economy.  

First, more than two-thirds of representatives in the Lower House – the more important of the two chambers – are now in favor of revising Japan’s post-war, pacifist constitution. 

Second, the hawkish conservative Japan Innovation Party, or JIP, won 41 seats, becoming the third-largest party in the chamber. That makes it a force to be reckoned with, and a potential booster for the right-wing ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP. 

Another conservative machine, the Democratic Party for the People, or DPP, has already allied with the JIP, giving them 52 seats combined – enough to propose budgetary measures. 

The big question facing the new parliament is whether its current lineup will finally make the seismic moves necessary to revise the country’s pacifist constitution, a document drafted and emplaced by Japan’s post-World War II US occupiers. 

If the contentious Article 9 of the constitution – which “forever renounces warfare” – is red-inked, Japan will have full freedom to act in military matters such as the defense of Taiwan if China takes aggressive action. 

A firmer stance on Taiwan is something for which hawks in the LDP have been agitating for much of this year. Though few Japanese have much stomach for overseas adventures, many feel a strong emotional commitment to their former colony – a sentiment many Taiwanese return.

Even without this on-paper change, the country has, since 2012, been gradually expanding its military capabilities with special impetus generated from belligerent statements and actions by China and North Korea. And this has happened despite Article 9 forbidding the maintaining of “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.”

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida intends to win the support of at least two-thirds of lawmakers. Photo: AFP / Yomiuri / Ryohei Moriya

In 2013, Japan announced its new national security strategy under then-prime minister Shinzo Abe. In 2014, Abe controversially reinterpreted Article 9 to allow the SDF to collaborate with foreign militaries to protect Japan in “collective self-defense.”

In 2015, the Diet passed security legislation that encountered considerable opposition from opposition lawmakers and the public. That showed that the public was not necessarily on board, but the LDP had the numbers in the Diet. In 2018, the government adopted a ten-year defense plan and a midterm procurement plan.

That same year, Japan stood up a marine arm for the first time since World War II. Also for the first time since 1945, a light aircraft carrier has been outfitted and another is coming online, though neither is yet armed with its F35 stealth fighters.

And since Japan decided not to deploy an Aegis ashore missile defense system in 2020, another question is whether Tokyo will opt for a “first strike” capability.

All of this has been done within the framework of a constitution that supposedly denounces war and prevents the country from possessing armed forces.

Now, the emergence of the JIP as a third party is likely to embolden the anti-China and pro-military factions of the LDP. None of these developments are likely to be welcomed in Beijing.

Who are Japan’s liberals?

A survey of who voted for whom in proportional districts by age group conducted by Asahi Shimbun and Kyodo news for the Lower House election on October 31 showed a surprising trend: The LDP has begun to lose the younger generation. 

Since the party won the lower house elections in 2014 – which it followed with another victory in 2017 – it has been taken for granted that young people are enthusiastic about it. But compared with the 2017 election, support from those aged 18 and over dropped from 46% to 42%; those in their 20s dropped from 47% to 40%; and those in their 30s dropped from 39% to 37%.

Many analysts believe that the issues of remilitarization and defense spending don’t resonate with young voters, who are more concerned about their quality of life and the growing gap between the rich and poor.  

Masahisa Endo, a political scientist and author of Japan Politics and Ideology, pointed out in an Asahi Shimbun article in September that there is no clear evidence that conservative sentiment is rising.

“We analyzed the trends of people who place their political awareness in the middle. Over time, diversity and tolerance have become increasingly important. Even after the second Abe administration came into power, liberalization has continued.”

But Endo’s analysis needs to be read in light of Japan’s specific politics, as differences in economic and welfare policies have had little to do with the label of “right-wing” or “left-wing.” 

Instead, opinion polls suggest that stances on constitutional revision and security are the core dividing line in the political consciousness.

The constitution gave women equal rights, established, in theory, the protection of basic human rights, guaranteed popular sovereignty, and renounced war, making Japan a pacifist state. The left-wing in Japan wants to preserve the constitution and expand protection for human rights.

Here is the issue. The left fears that an LDP-authored rewrite of the constitution would not only end pacifism but weaken freedom of the press and hinder equal rights for women.

Critics fear that constitution changes will include provisions that weaken press freedoms. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun

The LDP’s early draft of a replacement constitution shows that these fears are not unfounded. At a secretly recorded meeting of power players in the party in 2012, a former justice minister once said as much to thunderous applause.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition party, embodies these concerns in its name. Protecting the constitution from right-wing rewrites is a major appeal and raison d’être of the CDPJ. However, they did not do well in the last election, despite being expected to make gains: The CDPJ shrank from 110 seats to 96.

Meanwhile, the rise of the new right is complicating the political landscape. 

Bright new dark horse

A key beneficiary of the CDPJ’s electoral misfortune was the biggest surprise of the election: The conservative Japan Innovation Party, which expanded its seats from 11 to 41. 

Founded in 2015, the JIP supports federalism, free education, limited government, and neoliberalism – and is also strongly pro-military. In addition to removing defense spending limits, the JIP may stand with the LDP on revising the constitution.

However, the party’s victories were very largely limited to Osaka, Japan’s second city. The party won only one constituency other than in the city – in a district that includes two Osaka bedroom communities. 

And 15 of their victors are so-called “zombie lawmakers.” The term describes a person who runs in both primary and proportional elections, loses in the primary election, and is elected again in the proportional race. 

An opinion poll taken by the Asahi Newspaper this week shows how precarious support is. When asked why they voted for the JIP, 40% said that it was because they had high hopes for the party. But the majority 46% said they voted for JIP because they didn’t have much faith in either the LDP or the CPDJ. 

Originally considered an auxiliary of the LDP, the JIP has positioned itself as independent. JIP leader and Mayor of Osaka Ichiro Matsui said on television last Monday that he did not consider their showing as a victory. 

“Most of our 96 candidates lost,” he said. “We see the election as one we did not win because voters put their trust in the administration of Prime Minister (Fumio) Kishida and the ruling coalition.”

JIP leader Ichiro Matsui in a file photo. Image: Facebook

The party’s position amid the Diet’s power politics is not yet clear. Matsui has said the party will not join the LDP/Komeito ruling coalition. There is a good chance, however, that it will side with the LDP on certain issues. 

Michael MacArthur Bosack, special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies, wrote in a recent article wrote, “The pendulum swing between relevance and obscurity at the national level has been ongoing since the party’s inception. Are they destined to remain a regional party with national aspirations? Will they eventually change their position and cozy up to the LDP in exchange for policy concessions? Will they posture themselves to be a true alternative to the LDP?”

Constitutional revision: ready, set…

Combined, the LDP, its coalition partner Komeito, the JIP, and the DPP hold 345 seats in the Lower House – well up from their combined pre-election strength of 324 seats. That gives them more than two-thirds of the 465-seat chamber.

To propose amendments to the constitution, two-thirds or more of all members of both chambers, the Lower Representatives (lower) and the House of Councilors (upper), must concur.

So it looks like game on. The JIP will seek to revive stalled discussions in parliament on overhauling the constitution, party leaders indicated in recent television interviews. This could be as early as an extraordinary Diet session expected later this year or in next year’s regular Diet. The LDP, too, is by all signs eager to get the ball rolling.

Last week, Kishida told a news conference, “In order to advance constitutional reforms, a key party policy, and to deepen discussions, I intend to win the support of at least two-thirds of lawmakers (in both chambers) outside of the ruling party and the opposition party.” 

Yet, the JIP and its center-right ally the Democratic Party for the People could become a thorn in Kishida’s side as they compete for a say in authoring amendments to the constitution. Both parties claim to be “reform-oriented” and “middle-of-the-road.” 

Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner, is yet another wild card. At the polls, it raised its seats from 29 to 32, giving it slightly more heft – albeit it is very much a second player to the LDP’s 261.

Komeito, which is backed by the Buddhist religious group Soka Gakkai, is very successful in mobilizing its base and getting them to vote for the LDP in areas where the LDP is not fielding its own candidates. 

A semi-liberal, Buddhist party may not look like an ideal match for the Shinto-leaning, right-wing LDP, but the coalition makes sense for both. Komeito gets the LDP to ram through legislation on its party platform, showing its base that it can get things done. The LDP gets a sturdy voting machine. 

Constitutional changes must be approved by both houses of the Diet before being put to a popular vote. Photo: iStock

Yet, Komeito is still pacifist, with close ties to China, and is hesitant to change the constitution. How this dynamic will play out in the months ahead – particularly given that the LDP could feasibly ally with other right-wing voting blocs in the House – remains to be seen.

In the decades since the 1947 constitution took effect, many calls have been made for revision. That is no easy task. A proposal for revision must gain the approval of two-thirds of both houses of the Diet before it can be put to a national referendum.

The groundwork will be laid in the Lower House in the months ahead. Next summer’s Upper House elections will determine the feasibility of putting a revised constitution to the people’s vote.

If that process is fully worked through, Japan will, for the first time since 1945, have a constitutionally untrammeled military with major ramifications for Japan, its alliances and its neighbors.