Why Shinzo Abe faces an uphill battle to revise Japan’s constitution

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference at Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan December 10, 2018.  Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN. - RC1281930780
Editor's note:

Revising Japan’s constitution is a longtime ambition of conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving Japanese prime minister in 50 years. With Abe likely to serve through 2021, Abe and his conservative allies appear determined to try again next year, write Adam Liff and Ko Maeda. This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post.

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last week abandoned its widely anticipated plan to present a formal proposal to revise the 1947 constitution to the current session of the Diet, Japan’s legislature. Revising the constitution is a longtime ambition of conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving Japanese prime minister in 50 years. With Abe likely to serve through 2021, Abe and his conservative allies appear determined to try again next year.

Will this revision effort succeed? It’s an open question.

Part of the LDP proposal is to modify the constitution’s Article 9 “peace clause,” in which Japan renounces war and the maintenance of “war potential.” This means the success/failure of the revision push carries significant implications for Japan and its U.S. ally. Depending on the wording, a revision could enable new military platforms, roles and missions for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.

In a regional security environment increasingly shaped by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and expanding Chinese military and paramilitary activities, Abe and his allies see Article 9 as restraining Japan’s national defense capacity—and an obstacle to expanded efforts to contribute to regional security.

Despite these ambitions and Abe and his LDP’s widely-asserted dominance of Japanese politics since 2012, revising the constitution won’t be easy. Period. On their terms, it’s near impossible. Here are three major reasons why:

  1. Amending Japan’s constitution is difficult

Democracies protect their constitutions by setting a high procedural bar for any amendments. Japan is no exception, and its 71-year-old constitution has never been amended. In fact, revision has never been formally attempted, despite longstanding demands from conservative politicians and the LDP itself putting forward an ambitious full-text draft revision in 2012. Amending the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet. After that, the final step involves a national referendum, where a simple majority is required.

To be sure, Abe’s LDP is by far Japan’s most powerful political party, with a single-party majority in both houses. Many commentators note the party could cobble together an ad-hoc coalition of “pro-revision forces” from other parties and independents, and thus surpass the two-thirds threshold. But the fact that Abe’s LDP does not independently control two-thirds of the seats is significant for any revision proposal’s prospects.

  1. Japan’s public remains ambivalent

Even if a supra-partisan grouping of pro-revision Diet members could reach a consensus on a concrete amendment proposal, especially on Article 9—the most controversial aspect of contemporary debates about revision—opinion polls show a sharply divided public.

The reasons for this ambivalence run the gamut from pacifism in reaction to Japan’s pre-1945 militaristic past, to concerns about entrapment in a U.S.-initiated war far away from Japan. But Japanese also seem ambivalent about any revision, not just Article 9. An April 2018 survey suggests that only 29 percent of the public thinks constitutional revision is necessary—27 percent think it is not and the rest answered “not sure.”

These findings suggest that even if a proposal reaches a public referendum—for which there is no postwar precedent—the result is uncertain. A vocal minority passionately opposed to revision may turn out in force. Japan also faces a packed political calendar next year, including the abdication of Emperor Akihito. Abe and the LDP have reason to tread carefully.

  1. The LDP rules in coalition…and its junior partner’s support base is largely pacifistic

Though much of the public (and media) discourse, especially outside Japan, focuses exclusively on Abe and his LDP, the most direct obstacle to their Article 9 ambitions is hiding in plain sight. Since 1999, the LDP has cooperated in every national election with a much smaller junior partner and ideologically strange bedfellow: Komeito. This smaller party enjoys a de facto veto over Abe and the LDP on matters highly salient to its pacifist support base—especially Article 9 and other defense policy-related matters.

Since the LDP controls about 90 percent of the coalition’s parliamentary seats, Komeito’s leverage seems puzzling. But when it comes to constitutional revision, our new article explains the spoiler role Komeito is able to play, and how. The two parties have developed an odd mutual dependency that enables Komeito to punch significantly above its weight in intra-coalition policy debates.

Our analysis exposes the structural roots of the LDP’s remarkable electoral dependence on its junior partner, and demonstrates the implications for LDP Diet seat totals and, by extension, Komeito’s disproportionate influence in coalition policy decision-making. Because Komeito’s primary support base is politically active and pacifistic adherents of Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist movement, fundamentally revising Article 9’s existing clauses is anathema.

What is the source of Komeito’s leverage? Under Japan’s mixed electoral system, the main battleground of general elections is single-member districts (SMDs). Since 2003, the LDP and Komeito have avoided fielding competing candidates in all of them. Typically, the LDP stands down in the 8 to 10 SMDs where Komeito fields a candidate—who usually wins. In exchange, Komeito mobilizes its supporters to vote for LDP candidates everywhere else. These mutual “stand down” agreements give each party greater representation in the Diet than they would have otherwise.

Our research shows that so many LDP incumbents rely on Komeito supporters nowadays that the LDP would probably lose its single party majority in the Lower House without Komeito support. Both parties know this, which explains why the LDP tolerates such significant concessions, even on core policy concerns affecting national security.

We thus conclude in our article that Komeito is a significant source of Abe and the LDP’s current Diet strength. But this also leaves the majority party politically vulnerable. The same mechanism that explains the LDP-Komeito coalition’s remarkable durability is also likely to frustrate the LDP’s efforts to revise the constitution. Thus, even if a historic Article 9 revision goes through on Abe’s watch—which is by no means guaranteed—the actual substance is likely to fall far short of the LDP’s ambitions.