Abe faces major challenges in constitutional revision, foreign affairs

July 22, 2013


The landslide victory by his Liberal Democratic Party in the July 21 Upper House election gives Prime Minister Shinzo Abe political momentum to seek the constitutional revision he has long coveted, but he still faces a host of diplomatic issues that will require time to untangle.

On constitutional revision, the major focus will be whether Abe can accumulate the two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Diet needed to initiate a constitutional amendment before it can be placed before voters in a national referendum.

The LDP and junior coalition partner, New Komeito, control more than two-thirds of the seats in the Lower House, but failed to gain enough seats in the July 21 election for a similar majority in the Upper House.

Abe has said he wants to first amend Article 96, which defines the conditions for a constitutional amendment. In particular, he is seeking to lower the requirement to a simple majority in both chambers of the Diet.

Abe will likely seek the cooperation of the Japan Restoration Party, which has come out in favor of revising Article 96, as well as Your Party, which has a stance close to the LDP one. There are even lawmakers within the opposition Democratic Party of Japan who favor revising Article 96.

One problem facing the LDP, however, is that New Komeito is more cautious about changing Article 96.

Moreover, public opinion polls show a majority of respondents oppose revising Article 96. Those factors likely were behind the fact that Abe rarely touched upon constitutional revision during his campaign speeches for the Upper House election.

During the campaign, Abe said he wanted to revise Article 9 to clearly recognize the existence of the Self-Defense Forces. He will also likely lead debate on the issue by using the LDP draft for constitutional revision, which calls for the establishment of a national defense military.

However, the other parties that are leaning toward constitutional revision have different topics they are interested in. The Japan Restoration Party and Your Party want to revise the governing structure, while New Komeito favors adding environmental rights to the Constitution.

For those reasons, Abe is not expected to rush into the process of amending the Constitution.

High-ranking government officials said Abe will take his time in seeking to amend the Constitution, perhaps waiting two or three years before initiating an amendment in the Diet.

What Abe may seek before constitutional revision is a change in the government's interpretation of the Constitution, which currently prohibits the exercise of the right of collective self-defense.

Abe is expected to ask an advisory panel to look into the possibility of changing that interpretation to allow Japan to exercise the right and respond jointly should an ally come under attack.

However, because any such change would mean a major shift in the postwar political order, Abe will likely have to carefully weigh the political winds before pushing forward on changing that interpretation.

The government will likely also accelerate discussions with the United States to revise guidelines for defense cooperation that have not been touched since 1997. Those talks will likely touch upon the division of responsibilities in dealing with the emergence of China as well as the nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles being developed by North Korea.

The government is also expected to compile new National Defense Program Guidelines by the end of the year. Among the issues that will be considered for inclusion are whether the SDF should be allowed the capability for a pre-emptive strike on enemy missile bases, as well as amphibious landing units to protect outlying islands.

Meanwhile, the troubled relations with China and South Korea will likely continue as territorial disputes lie at the center of the current difficulties.

There are no signs of any possible meetings between Abe and Chinese leaders due to the dispute over the Senkaku Islands.

The government also does not appear to have any plan to hold talks between Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye with bilateral relations hurt not only by the dispute over the Takeshima islets but also a historical flap over "comfort women," Korean and other women who were forced to provide sex to Imperial Japanese Army soldiers before and during World War II.

Both China and South Korea will also be watching closely to see if Abe visits Yasukuni Shrine on either Aug. 15, the date which marks the end of World War II for Japan, or the shrine's autumn festival.

On a TV appearance late on July 21, Abe stopped short of saying whether he would visit the shrine, which memorializes Japan's war dead as well as 14 Class-A war criminals.

The Abe administration will also face difficulties in proceeding with the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the Henoko district of Nago, also in Okinawa. The LDP candidate in the Okinawa prefectural constituency was defeated on July 21, indicating the extent to which public opinion in Okinawa opposes relocating Futenma within the prefecture.

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers questions from reporters at the headquarters of his Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo on July 21. (Nobuhiro Shirai)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers questions from reporters at the headquarters of his Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo on July 21. (Nobuhiro Shirai)

  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers questions from reporters at the headquarters of his Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo on July 21. (Nobuhiro Shirai)

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