Argument

Shinzo Abe’s Dream Will Never Come True

Japan’s prime minister will have a historic legacy—just not the one he always wanted.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives for a bi-lateral meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May at the United Nations Headquarters on September 20, 2016 in New York City.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives for a bi-lateral meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May at the United Nations Headquarters on September 20, 2016 in New York City. WPA Pool/Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s legacy appears to be set—it’s just not the one he always wanted. After a strong showing in late July parliamentary elections, he is now on track to become the country’s longest-serving prime minister and is able to boast of bringing a solid economic recovery to a country that had suffered many years of stagnation. What appears still out of reach, however, is his cherished personal goal of shedding the pacifist nature of Japan’s postwar constitution.

The election for one-half of the seats in the upper house of the Japanese parliament gave Abe’s ruling coalition a comfortable majority but still short of the two-thirds majority needed to endorse amendments to the constitution, something that has never been done since it came into effect 72 years ago. In the tally, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) took 57 of the 124 seats being contested, while its Buddhist-linked ally Komeito provided an additional 14. This far outweighed a range of opposition parties, the largest of which took 17 seats.

Abe’s focus—some would call it an obsession—on the constitution goes back to when he was first the country’s leader in a lackluster performance of just one year from 2006 to 2007, one of a string of short-term leaders who had failed to make much of a mark.

When he again ran for the premiership in 2012, Abe said he wanted to amend the constitution. But realizing that this remained controversial in postwar Japan, he instead emphasized the need for a new economic program that came to be known as Abenomics, calling this his No. 1 priority.

The combination of stronger fiscal stimulus, broad monetary easing, and structural reforms has produced steady growth and an apparent end to nearly two decades of deflationary pressures that have dragged down demand. Although it has received churlish reviews from some economists, the Abenomics program has chalked up a fair number of successes. Real GDP growth has averaged around 1.5 percent since the start of his latest term, and with a shrinking population, per capita growth has been higher. At the same time, nominal GDP has grown 16.5 percent since Abe took office in late 2012. That has helped break the deflationary cycle and raise tax revenues to ease, at least slightly, the long-term problems of the highest government debt burden in the world.

Unemployment has fallen to 2.3 percent as the workforce shrinks, matching levels last seen in 1993. This has been accompanied by a record number of working women, another high-profile initiative by Abe. Japan’s central bank has meanwhile undergone its biggest monetary expansion in history. When appointed by Abe in 2013, Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda had boldly said he would create a steady 2 percent inflation rate within two years. The reality has proved to be much trickier, but prices are now either stable or trending modestly higher at around 0.7 percent, achieving the underlying goal of ending deflation that has been a drag on wages and consumption.

Abe has even made some headway on Japan’s debt time bomb. With years of failed stimulus, Japan’s government debt has grown to around 240 percent of annual GDP, by far the highest for any major economy and among the highest levels ever seen. (The comparable U.S. figure is 104 percent.) While progress has been modest, Abe has been able to stabilize the figure and reduce the proportion of spending that is financed by borrowing to less than 35 percent from 48 percent when he took office.

Abe has also managed to improve relations with China, which had hit a low in 2012 when a previous government had purchased a group of islands in the East China Sea from private Japanese owners. China, which also claims ownership, was outraged at what it saw as Japan’s nationalization of the territory. Relations have improved to the point that Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to make a state visit next spring. In this, Abe has probably had more luck than diplomatic flare. With China’s trade war of attrition with the Trump administration, it was natural to mend some fences elsewhere.

Even in the growing trade and history conflict with South Korea, Abe seems to have public support. A weekend poll by the national broadcaster NHK found that 55 percent supported Abe’s moves to set tougher rules on exports to South Korea, with only 8 percent opposed. The bad feeling is mutual. Following Japan’s actions, 80 percent of South Koreans said they would boycott Japanese products.

Despite his successes, Abe has never given up on the idea of being the first leader to push through a change to the post-World War II constitution, especially Article 9, which renounces the use of all military force as a means to settling international disputes and prohibits the establishment of a military.

The 1947 Japanese Constitution is an anomaly in many respects. It was drafted by a group of U.S. occupying military personnel and then approved by a parliament sitting in occupation. Despite its source and its unique ban on a full-fledged military force, it has never been amended. Abe is not alone in seeing this as wrong. The right-leaning LDP, which Abe heads, has long had a platform of changing what it feels is a constitution imposed by outsiders.

Despite the LDP’s political dominance in the postwar period and the changing security situation facing the country, the electorate has never been won over, with the issue almost invariably far down on topics of voter interest in each election. There are a number of plausible reasons for this. For starters, it prevents any risk of a return of the militarism that led to the ill-fated territorial expansion ending with defeat in World War II. In addition, politicians have not been able to provide any concrete examples of how the country will be better off with a regular military force, especially in light of the fact that the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) are today one of the most advanced military establishments in the world.

But Abe refuses to give up. Even after the recent election, he said the results showed “the judgment by voters that constitutional revision at least be debated.” His proposal is to take a low-key approach. Instead of creating a full-fledged military, he wants new language that specifically authorizes the existence of the SDF. His argument is that the current wording could mean that even a self-defense force is against the law and would need to be abolished. Never mind that no mainstream figure has suggested this as a course of action and even Abe’s political allies have questioned this logic.

Some analysts say Abe is seeking to make this relatively uncontroversial change rather than trying to take on the pacifist wording of Article 9 directly. “He no longer insists on the creation of a conventional military with him as commander in chief, to which there is considerable resistance from the people, but has come to endorse the status quo,” said Sadaaki Numata, a former Japanese diplomat.

Some see ulterior motives. One legal scholar says the proposal is a way for Abe and the ruling party supporters of constitutional change to lock in a controversial 2015 legislation that “reinterpreted” the constitution to allow the SDF greater leeway in undertaking combat overseas. “The current Trojan Horse amendment is designed to avoid controversy and debate, but it would serve to effectively lock in the reinterpretation as a de-facto informal amendment to the Constitution,” Craig Martin, a professor of law and co-director of the International and Comparative Law Center at Washburn University School of Law, wrote recently in the Japan Times.

The road to a parliamentary vote is itself fraught. The main opposition party is resolute in opposing any change to the constitution, and even Komeito, Abe’s allied party that is affiliated with a leading Buddhist organization, views the idea with some unease. “It’s a little pushy to take the results [of the upper house election] as a go-ahead to debate constitutional revision,” Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said in a television interview the day after the election. Without Komeito’s support, Abe would have no chance of passage in either house of parliament.

Another unknown for Abe is what the public would actually do in the referendum that is required to enact any constitutional change after approval by parliament. Public opinion has long been fairly evenly split on the issue, one of the few divisive topics within the Japanese electorate. The current mood is not in Abe’s favor, with a post-election poll by Kyodo News finding 56 percent opposed to amending Article 9 and just 32 percent in favor.

While it can be a fallacy to ascribe a single motivation to the ballots of millions of voters, the election outcome appears to send a clear signal: They like Abe even after six and a half years but would be very wary of any efforts by him to use the constitution to bolster his own image. Failure to act at least avoids the worst outcome for Abe—a defeated referendum. No leader would want that legacy.

William Sposato is a Tokyo-based writer who has been following Japan’s economy and financial markets for more than 15 years.

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