Just days after the assassination of his precursor Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida promised to amend the country’s pacifist constitution and grow its military power, The Asahi Shimbun reports.
Kishida’s vow to revise Japan’s ‘Peace Constitution,’ imposed on it by the Allied powers after the Second World War, came at an opportune time. Abe’s death by gunshot while giving a campaign speech in Nara on July 8th happened just days before voters trekked to the polls. Undoubtedly aided by a fair share of sympathy votes, Abe’s—and Kishida’s— Liberal Democratic Party won a majority of the 125 seats in the Upper House election.
Now Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has no small political capital to execute the vision of the ill-fated Abe, which he laid out during a July 11th press conference. There he said that
We will carry on the beliefs of former Prime Minister Abe and tackle issues that he was so earnestly concerned about, such as returning the Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea and constitutional revision, but could not resolve when he served as prime minister.
This “constitutional revision” refers to Article 9 specifically. Written by American officials to ensure Japan would never go to war again, it delineates that “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.” The vision was one of a postwar Japan that would remain disarmed and under supervision by the United Nations.
First however, certain details need to be ironed out among the four ruling parties. “I want to initiate an amendment as soon as possible by first seeking agreement by two-thirds of chamber members around a specific proposal,” Kishida said.
If he achieves this, the vision of Abe—who sought an amendment that explicitly acknowledged Japan’s right to maintain its military, the Self-Defense Forces—could well become a reality soon. Yet, such a constitutional amendment requires not only a two-thirds majority in Parliament, but also a 51%majority in a referendum.
The latter might prove more difficult to secure. The Japanese are famously split over the issue, which conjures up fears of a radical, ultra-nationalist (if not imperialist) element rearing its head again—and gaining entrance to real power. Because of this, Abe could never accomplish this particular goal. On the political front, Prime Minister Kishida might well have the numbers, but public sentiment could as well gainsay any legalistic tinkering.
Analysts wonder what significant change in the short term a constitutional amendment will bring about however. The existing constitution has not dissuaded Japan from investing in long-range missiles to counter North Korea and China, for example.
Additionally, though the country’s spending percentage (out of its Gross Domestic Product) has remained relatively low at 1%, its budget for 2021 was around $51 billion, marking a growth for the ninth year in a row. And according to ‘informed sources’, this number could soon grow exponentially.
On July 16th, they told the Japan Times that the government plans to allow the Defense Ministry to make budget requests for the fiscal year of 2023 without specifying requested amounts. It is believed the move would open the door to an increase in defense spending to 2% of Japan’s GDP within five years. Japan, according to GDP, is the third-largest economy in the world.
Such military investments are not wholly uncalled for. In the current global climate, tensions in the region are brewing. China remains the most immediate threat, as it contests Japan’s ownership of the Senkaku Islands. Although uninhabited, these have potential oil and natural gas reserves, are near prominent shipping routes, and are surrounded by rich fishing areas.
Tokyo claims that in 1895 the chain was incorporated into Japanese territory after the government ascertained no previous owner could be identified. China Foreign Ministry however maintains the islands are China’s inherent territory, and has accused Japanese fishing boats of making “repeated intrusions” into the area.
Adding to the squabble are satellite photos, released on July 15th, which show a destroyed object shaped like a Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) aircraft in the Chinese Xinjiang region. The object, experts say, may have been used for missile attack training on hypothetical targets in Japan. The date of the object’s destruction is believed to coincide with the period when China and Russia conducted military activities near Japan. On July 4, their naval vessels were spotted around the Senkaku Islands.
Apart from territorial disputes, other matters demand Kishida’s attention. Currently, Japan is being slammed by a seventh wave of the coronavirus, with a record infection rate of 110,00 daily, a slacking economy, and weak yen, as well as rising costs for consumers—the latter partly because of Japan’s sanctioning of Russia. Kishida is intent on setting up a special government task force to lighten the burden on the Japanese.
Meanwhile, the country’s well-known demographic crisis (it has the oldest population in the world), always paired with cultural insecurity, lurks in the background.
Nationalist sentiment, therefore, could soon transition from an eccentricity indulged in by a vocal few, to a broadly shared necessity towards Japan’s survival.