Monday, August 25, 2014

The likelihood of Japanese constitutional revision

Recently, there has been some talk about whether Japan will change its currently fairly pacifist constitution to allow for the possibility of a larger, more powerful military. While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to have some support for such a change, there are some rather serious obstacles that are in his way if this is what he wants to do.

What is the problem?

The particular part of Japan's constitution that prohibits a large, powerful military is Article 9. This states that 'land, sea and air forces shall never be maintained'. In order to change this, a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Japanese parliament, plus a referendum, is required. I will focus on the bill passing Parliament, and ignore the referendum, for the moment.

The House of Representatives

In the House of Representatives, the governing coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party (Abe's party) and the Buddhist New Komeito party hold a two-thirds majority. Looking at this, one would assume that it would be easy to pass the amendment through the Representatives. Wrong. The problem with this assumption is that the New Komeito party strongly oppose any change to Article 9. The table below shows how the forces in the House line up on a repeal of Article 9.

I could not find clear information  on New Party Daichi or the independents, and as a result they are not included.

This looks pretty straightforward. There is a clear two-thirds majority in favour of repealing Article 9. However, the main fly in the ointment is the Restoration Party. First, the Restoration Party is in coalition with the Unity Party (an ironically named split-off from Your Party), and as a result would not be quite as free to support a repeal as this graph implies. Second, despite extensive searching, I cannot quite pin the Restoration Party down as entirely opposing Article 9.In fact, the only party that clearly opposes Article 9, other than the LDP (which I assume opposes it for the purpose of this article) is the Party for Future Generations.

Also, the Your Party is only on record (as I could find it) as supporting some constitutional revision, and its support may not extend to a full repeal of Article 9.

This makes it harder for the LDP. Unless they could entice a few of the more conservative Democrats to cross the floor, the only option is to do a deal with Future Generations and Restoration and Your, or (more likely, given the ultranationalist position of many within Future Generations) with Restoration and/or Your alone. Anyway, the LDP's biggest problem is that some of their members may cross the floor, which would sink their chances entirely.

But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that it passes. It then goes to the House of Councillors, which is the biggest challenge.

House of Councillors

Again, the same table from above, only with House of Councillors numbers instead.
This is also pretty clear. The pro-Article 9 parties hold a majority in the upper house. Most of the parties supporting Article 9 are fairly rusted on, and while a few conservative Democrats will cross the floor, the bill will probably fall here, at least in the current parliament.

The House of Councillors cannot be dissolved, and does not go to the polls until 2016, the same year when a Representatives election will have to be held. If the House of Councillors result in 2016 gives anti-Article 9 forces a 2/3 majority, Abe will have to rush the bill through before the Representatives election, just in case he loses his majority. Rushing the bill through will be very hard, and there would be an enormous incentive for pro-Article 9 members to delay the bill as much as possible.


We also need to look at what is happening in the meantime. The economy in Japan is still in bad shape, and if Abe spends most of his time trying to pass this amendment, and not fixing the economy, the quest to repeal Article 9 may be perceived as a sideshow to distract voters from the economy.

Abe has been in this place before. In the run-up to the 2007 House of Councillors election, Abe was unable to get the electorate to focus on his chosen issue, textbooks and Japan's history. Instead, voters punished the LDP for its involvement in the loss of pension records, and Abe lost his majority in the House of Councillors.

The LDP are a notoriously unsentimental party, and any slide in opinion polls (or a movement towards the opposition by New Komeito) would probably be enough to cause the party to dump Abe in favour of a more moderate candidate.

In conclusion, it appears that the likelihood of Article 9 changing with the current procedures for constitutional reform in the current parliament is low.


  1. Very interesting. I thought the main threat to article 9 was from changing the interpretation used by the government, bureaucracy or the courts?
    Also, what is the nature of the Unity-Restoration alliance?

  2. I agree with you somewhat that the main threat to Article 9 is re-interpretation, but there is only so much that you can re-interpret, and Abe really wants to totally get rid of it.
    The Unity-Restoration alliance was originally planned as a marriage of convenience to become the largest opposition block. However, after Shintaro Ishihara left to form Future Generations, and took the ultra-nationalists with him, the alliance became a soft-nationalist party with a pacifist wing (Unity).

  3. Actually, I'm not so sure myself as to what exactly Abe can achieve by re-interpreting only, it's just that most articles I've seen only talk about that aspect, without considering any other factors. For example, couldn't the Supreme Court stop any attempt to subvert article 9? - JD

  4. Yes, JD (same JD from Fruits and Votes?), re-interpretation could be stopped by the Supreme Court, and that's why Abe is so eager to repeal Article 9. However, the recent case over malapportionment in Japanese elections, where the government has done the bare minimum required to make the boundaries constitutional, shows that Abe will do everything that he can in terms of re-interpretation before he will make moves on repeal. From what I can see, the current interpretation that allows Self-Defence Forces to fight in overseas wars is as far as Article 9 can be stretched, and there will have to be a repeal before anything else major can be done.


The Editor reserves the right to delete any comments on grounds including, but not limited to, irrelevant, offensive and threatening.