Reviving the Economy or Revising the Constitution?

2 September 1945. Its cities flattened, its islands surrounded by hostile forces, and a bloody invasion by its Western nemesis imminent, the Empire of Japan duly surrendered to the United States of America. It was not long before the occupation forces moved in. Eventually, General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, moved in and set up his office in the Dai Ichi building in Tokyo, opposite the Imperial Palace. Gaijin shogun, the Japanese nicknamed MacArthur subsequently: “foreign military dictator”. A nickname it may be, but it carried a deeper, serious meaning. For the first time in its history, Japan was under the rule of a foreign power. Even during the twilight years of the Tokugawa regime, when Japan’s self-imposed isolation from the outside world was rudely and suddenly ended by Commodore Perry, Japan had never surrendered its independence.  Now, however, things were different. Hideki Tojo was not in power but in prison. General MacArthur was now running the show.

Douglas MacArthur: the ‘gaijin shogun’

Not that the Japanese government was ever entirely dissolved. MacArthur chose to retain the Emperor on his throne and a native civilian government continued to run the country. It was not for nothing, however, that the gaijin shogun was sitting in the Dai Ichi. Embarking upon an ambitious programme of reform, over the course of seven years MacArthur accomplished the democratisation of Japan (a marked change from millennia of imperial and military rule), the liberalisation of its society and economy including implementation of ‘New Deal’ style policies and laying the groundwork for the spectacular economic growth that would follow the end of the occupation period.

This was not all that MacArthur did. Another significant aspect of the occupation’s legacy would be the bequeathing of a new constitution: it would turn out to be a unique product indeed. MacArthur’s constitution drafting committee, keenly aware of the poisonous fruits that were borne by Japan’s recent militarism and hyper-nationalism, decided Japan could not be permitted to wage war ever again. Article 9 of the constitution stated:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognised.

The eternal renunciation of warfare. Pacifism would become part of the postwar country’s guiding ideology. Also included was Article 96, a clause which states that any amendment to the constitution would have to be approved by two-thirds of Japan’s parliament and ratified by a simple majority in a referendum on the amendment.  This and Article 9 guaranteed, in the eyes of the American occupiers, that Japan would never again militarise and pose a threat to the United States and her allies.

* * *

And that is the background to the question that is currently being debated in Japan. Should the constitution be revised and Article 9 removed, easing away the restrictions imposed on Japan’s military?

In the end, the promise never to maintain armed forces of any kind would not be kept. Now Japan boasts of a ‘Self Defence Force’, the creation of which was encouraged by the Americans themselves who immediately began to regret the inclusion of Article 9. The Korean War soon broke out and American leaders had second thoughts about how well a defenceless Japan that need to wholly rely on American military power would serve America’s own national interests. Now, Japan owns an armed force with the eighth highest military spending in the world. What was never changed, however, was the renunciation of war as a sovereign right. As capable of a force it may be, the JSDF is still committed, as its name suggests, only to self-defence. The ideals of pacifism still demand adherence. War is not an option, and will never be an option.

That, some say, is a wrong that must be righted. There are all sorts of reasons for why proponents of constitutional revision argue Article 9 should be changed. There are, firstly, geopolitical realities: with the rise of China, a belligerent North Korea and a United States that may very well be facing for the first time downward fortunes, many say it is imperative that Japan regains its ability to wage war should it ever need to. Japan’s interests and the US’s interests are sometimes asymmetric; if China were to gain complete control over the South China Sea, it would be able to cut the import-dependent Japan’s lifelines at any time- but not of the United States’. This is no time to be shackled by the constraints of pacifism, the realists say. In addition, what if an ally needed help? The United States is duty-bound to defend Japan, but what if the US itself were to come under attack? Would Japan, as powerful an ally as it was, be permitted no role? It was a telling moment when a JSDF force landing in the Middle East to participate in aid and relief efforts became more of a hindrance than help as it could not be permitted to fire at the enemy, thus requiring international bodyguards.

Nobusuke Kishi

There also exists, inevitably, the nationalist argument. Japan as it exists currently is little more than a US protectorate, some argue, dependent on its superpower friend for security. The time has come, they argue, for Japan to ‘normalise’ and fully join the ranks of other self-governing countries, none of which lack the right to go to war. Others talk about the sheer strangeness of continued obedience to a constitution imposed by an occupying power. Why must the Japanese be bound by the edicts of the gaijin shogun? As an independent country, should it not have its own self-originated charter?

Sensitive questions, to be sure, especially when the resulting peace from pacifism has been clear for all to see, but nevertheless many politicians have attempted to tackle this debate. One such politician was Nobusuke Kishi, a minister in the Tojo cabinet who went on to become prime minister himself. His main priorities included revising the constitution, with him declaring that revision and rearmament would be “a means of eradicating completely the consequences of Japan’s defeat and the American occupation. It is necessary to enable Japan finally to move out of the post-war era and for the Japanese people to regain their self-confidence and pride as Japanese.” Kishi’s efforts went nowhere.

* * *

When Kishi’s grandson was elected as prime minister in 2006, it was not a surprise that the new leader would follow his grandfather’s footsteps. Shinzo Abe, also known for his visits to the infamous Yasukuni Shrine and comfort women denials, put his views on security to the forefront of his policies. The time has come, Abe declared, for constitutional revision. He upgraded the Self Defence Agency to a full ministry. Alas, however, it seemed that Abe would follow in his grandfather’s footsteps in more than just policy- his efforts would perhaps go nowhere as well. Constitutional revision was simply unpopular for an electorate that had now become used to pacifist ideals. Amid tanking approval ratings, tainted by corruption scandals and plagued by a chronic intestinal condition, Abe resigned from the premiership after only a year in office.

Shinzo Abe

Many prime ministers followed Abe in as many years. By 2012, however, he was back for a second stint at being prime minister. Learning from his mistakes, Abe now put not security and the constitution but instead the economy to the forefront: a topic far more in the interest of the public. For two decades, Japan has suffered from growth wholly incomparable to those of its golden years where it almost threatened American economic dominance. The economy stagnated; weak demand fuelled seemingly incurable deflation, massive public debt and a falling population seemed to doom the country into further and further economic doom. The answer, Abe told the hardly optimistic electorate, was his proposed policies, to be collectively known as Abenomics. It would involve three arrows: fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms to the Japanese economy.

Thus far, however, despite much hype and fanfare, Abenomics has been no great success. Even before its launch, critics have derided it as more style than substance, an attempt to treat the symptoms of Japan’s economic weaknesses and not its structural ills. Increased spending has not been able to withstand pressure from the Ministry of Finance. The final arrow, and what some viewed with the most hope, included attempting to bring more women into Japan’s highly patriarchal workforce; not much progress has been made, let alone any real achievement. Aggressive monetary policies were implemented by Abe’s handpicked central bank governor, Haruhiko Kuroda. Letting lose the printing presses, Kuroda vowed to produce inflation through quantitative easing. Consumers, with much extra money, could perhaps spend more freely and produce the much-desired inflation.

That was not to be the case. As Kuroda and Abe discovered to their dismay, talking economic theory was one thing, but in practice, they found it impossible to persuade consumers to buy more and for companies to invest more. It hardly helped when Abe simultaneously tried to tackle the issue of Japan’s mountain of debt by attempting to increase government revenue through a sales tax hike, lowering demand even further. Eventually the central bank pushed through a desperate attempt: negative interest rates. Would Japanese consumers finally do something with their money now? The answer was yes, they did. They used it to buy more safe boxes to put their savings in.

This leads us to the most recent upper house elections in Japan. With Abenomics on unsure footing, Abe pronounced the election as a referendum on his policies. Should his Liberal Democratic party emerge victorious from the elections, it would be a clear sign that the public endorsed continuing his policies.

Abe campaigning with candidates

Inevitably, however, many caught on to the significance of the elections. A mere referendum on Abenomics they certainly were not. Currently the LDP and the junior party in the government coalition, Komeito, commanded a two-thirds ‘supermajority’ in the lower house of Japan’s parliament. Winning this election in large enough numbers may grant Abe, along with some other small like-minded parties the same majority in the upper house as well. And, as many are aware, having a two-thirds majority in both houses meant opening the door to Article 96: the possibility of constitutional revision, Abe’s long-held dream.

Of course, Abe, also aware of the unpopularity of constitutional revision, focused on the message of “It’s the economy, stupid”. Abenomics, Abenomics, Abenomics. He had used similar singular messaging in the 2014 elections, when he had called snap elections to cement his government’s rule- an election which he won easily. Now, two years on, voters granted him a similar victory. Uneasy about the prospect of returning power to a discredited opposition (the Democratic Party had fumbled during its own time in power between Abe’s two premierships), eager for stability and some even still optimistic about Abenomics, the LDP and Komeito increased their majority in the House of Councillors.

More importantly, when combined with other parties favouring constitutional amendment, there were now enough members in both houses of parliament to enact constitutional reform.

* * *

The ball is once again with Abe. His parliamentary supermajorities secured, the possibility of constitutional revision opened, would he take the bait? Would he push on with his- and his grandfather’s- dream of normalising Japan, rebuilding the military and strengthening Japan’s presence on the world stage?

On one hand, there is an obvious reason not to pursue this goal despite the electoral successes. The election had indeed been won, but it was not due to a rise in favour of revising the constitution, but rather as a vote of confidence in Abenomics. It is simply the responsibility of the Japanese government, then to continue to further pursue these policies. Abe has already duly announced new economic stimulus packages and indicated that constitutional revision can wait for later. It was not a process to be rushed, he noted. As an adept political operator, he probably recognises that to try to ram through something so unpopular now would squander all his political capital and divert too much energy and time from the more pressing problem of the economy.

But on the other hand, the pressures for going through with constitutional revision are also real. The United States is in favour of reform (if only to relieve its own duty to defend Japan), and the geopolitical challenges of eastern Asia also continue to grow. And, it can hardly be forgotten, what about the LDP’s own voters? What about the more nationalist portion of the electorate that has always seen Abe as its champion, the ones that have always felt the urgency of abandoning the foreigners’ constitution and becoming a truly self-governing nation, whatever that might entail? For him to abandon them now that revision truly was in sight for the first time would be a betrayal indeed. Indeed, he has already made a move to reinterpret the clause as allowing ‘collective self defence’: the right to enter an ally’s territory and help defend it. Wholesale reform of the constitution would merely be a second push.

Of course, it would not be difficult to envision a scenario where Abe attempts both at once: the simultaneous reviving of the economy and revising the constitution. It would very well consume much time and energy; Abe is still having a hard time with firing all three of his Abenomics arrows, and barely has his governing partner, the Buddhist and pacifist Komeito party, on board with constitutional revision, let alone the entire public. It could very well bring down his premiership yet again. To not try both, however, is hard to see.

It will require precise and careful political calculation. China is bound to be enraged; South Korea would also certainly protest. In the end, however, with the changing political circumstances and the realigning of global power, Japan may have no choice. Both a strong economy and assured security must be had. To have neither would be dangerous indeed.






3 responses to “Reviving the Economy or Revising the Constitution?”

  1. […] year, in my article ‘Reviving the Economy or Revising the Constitution?‘, I noted that Abe may opt to pursue two objectives at once. Firstly, he would aim to revive […]

  2. […] year, in my article ‘Reviving the Economy or Revising the Constitution?‘, I noted that Abe may opt to pursue two objectives at once. Firstly, he would aim to revive […]

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