A likely win by former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in this weekend’s election will give him a second chance to achieve his goal of easing the limits of a pacifist constitution on the military to let Tokyo play a bigger global security role.
Surveys released on Tuesday showed the conservative Liberal Democratic Party and its ally the New Komeito Party are headed for a big victory in today’s vote for parliament’s lower house, returning them to power after a three-year gap.
As prime minister from 2006 to 2007, Abe made revising the 1947 constitution a key part of a drive to shed a US-imposed “post-war regime” that conservatives say weakened traditional values and fostered too apologetic a view of Japan’s wartime history.
He still hopes to achieve what he has called his “life work.”
Growing worries about China’s military clout mean conditions are better than before for changing how the US-drafted charter is interpreted — if not formally rewriting the document yet — to let Tokyo drop a self-imposed ban on exercising its right to collective self-defense, or aiding an ally under attack.
That would allow Japan’s military to shoot down a North Korean missile headed for US cities, come to the aid of a US vessel under attack on the high seas and generally ease the path for joint operations with US forces, experts say.
“I think changing the interpretation is relatively easy procedurally and substantially and in terms of mood, it is the right atmosphere,” said Richard Samuels, director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, an expert in Japan’s security policies. “He will do it because he can. The stars are aligned for that kind of shift sooner rather than later.”
The constitution’s Article 9 renounces the right to wage war to resolve international disputes and, if taken literally, bans the maintenance of a military.
However, it has already been stretched to allow the maintenance of a military for self-defense as well as overseas activities, including troop deployment on a non-combat mission to Iraq.
Further moves, even if in some ways symbolic, would trigger outrage in China, where memories of Japan’s wartime aggression run deep. A feud over rival claims to tiny islands in the East China Sea this year sparked violent protests and boycotts of Japanese firms, damaging trade between the region’s two biggest economies.
“Right-wing tendencies in Japan are currently very strong, and Abe is acting on this. Looking at Japan now, it’s not that likely that it will revive militarism, but if it alters the constitution, it will give Japan a chance to strengthen its military weaponry,” said Huang Dahui (黃大慧), a professor and Japan specialist at People’s University in Beijing. “It presents an opening for there to be no restrictions. So in the long run, I think we need to be vigilant toward Japan.”
The changes would be welcome in Washington, which has long urged Tokyo to take on more of the alliance burden, and in parts of Asia, although any efforts to recast Japan’s wartime history in less apologetic terms would be less so.
The Philippines said on Monday that a stronger Japan would act as a counterbalance to China’s military rise, which is worrying smaller Asian nations as tensions grow over rival territorial claims in the South China Sea.