Following Shinzo Abe´s remarkable election result, commentators have speculated about his renewed zeal for constitutional revision; namely the amendment of Article 9 to grant constitutional recognition of the quasi-military Self-Defence Forces. However, a lukewarm public response to such revision casts into doubt the equivalence of electoral support with a mandate for such actions.  

Last June, Japan’s long-serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was facing his lowest approval ratings on record due to corruption scandals enmeshing his party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Following the election on Oct. 22 he has now secured a two-thirds majority in parliament, capitalising on a debilitated Japanese opposition coupled with public angst engendered by the ongoing North Korea crisis.

The crisis has rekindled Japan’s constitutional revision movement. While designs to amend the “pacifist clause” of Article 9 have never exactly been side-lined, Abe´s recent announcement of his ambitions to achieve said amendment by 2020 marks a demonstrable shift. According to Dr. Kenneth McElwain of the Institute of Social Science, University of Tokyo, “Abe’s decision to make constitutional revision one of the pillars of the LDP’s election manifesto [is] distinctive.”

Article 9 states that “Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation” and furthermore, that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” This clause, drawn up in the aftermath of WWII, has characterised Japan’s peaceful role in international affairs to the present day.  

From a faithful reading of Article 9, one might be misled to believe that Japan currently carries out no military operations. In fact, since 1954 Japan has maintained the Self-Defence Forces (SDF), which currently boasts a manpower of 227,000. The SDF’s role has been communicated as “defensive” to escape falling under the interpretation of “war potential” under Article 9. Nevertheless, their mandate is increasingly expanding. This year they were deployed as part of a UN peacekeeping mission to South Sudan, although this was initially screened from public knowledge.  

This last point speaks to the Japanese public’s ambivalence towards militarisation. In some sense, pacifism has informed Japan’s present-day national identity. A voter from Osaka, who prefers to remain anonymous, explains, that he and his peers consider the Japanese constitution “a masterpiece constructed by Japan and the United States, which has upheld peace for seventy-two years.” The Asahi Newspaper published a poll following the election in which 45% of participants expressed opposition to Abe’s plans, with 36% in favour, and the remainder undecided.

The public level of approval is crucial, because Article 96 of the Constitution stipulates that any amendment must be approved by a two-thirds majority in parliament and ratified through public referendum by a simple majority. The first condition is now less onerous following Abe´s victory. Indeed, his government is ingrained with the influence of Nippon Kaigi, an obscure yet powerful Japanese nationalist association. However, a gulf remains between these political parties and the public that voted for them; will this change in the near future?

We may have to wait for post-election hysteria to die down before public attitudes are clearly articulated, but there are ominous signs; the Asahi poll records an increase in youth support for the amendment. Developments will also hinge on how the North Korean crisis unfolds. Japan has been embroiled in other security threats, such as the Senkaku Islands Dispute with China. However, the recent missile launches over Hokkaido ordered by the North Korean regime are likely to register a more palpable impact across the Japanese public. We may reach a point where diplomacy and negotiation, implied by Article 9 as Japan’s only recourse, will be considered insufficient means for combatting the threat.

Nevertheless, Dr. McElwain believes Abe faces “an uphill battle.” So how might he act? He will be cautiously confident that he now has a mandate for heightened consideration of the issue, if not for constitutional revision itself. He may campaign, in a roundabout fashion, to amend the onerous demands of Article 96, which are preventing constitutional amendments for other popular initiatives. He will likely consider a “mild” amendment initially, prioritising constitutional recognition of the SDF before changing the content of Article 9 dramatically. He is also likely to continue his aggressive rhetoric in response to the North Korean crisis.

Abe, who has already achieved ground-breaking revisions of Japanese policy, has very much tied up his remaining political legacy with this issue. It is vital to keep one eye on his next move, but it is equally vital to keep the other eye on public opinion.