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Japan's pacifism in peril, again

War & Peace
Shinzo Abe
Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan. Credit: Chatham House

Hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to tinker with Japan’s pacifist constitution – but peace activists are organizing to thwart him.

Abe has announced plans to amend the Constitution by 2020, to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics, using the charter’s 70th anniversary as a pretext.

Abe says the revisions are necessary for Japan to be ‘reborn and move strongly forward’. Many Japanese activists disagree, arguing Abe’s real agenda is to revise the constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9. They fear this will take Japan back to its pre-war past, when the military used emergency laws enacted in the name of national security to hijack political power.

One of Abe’s oldest opponents, now 102, sees dangerous parallels to the 1930s. ‘Back then, I was arrested by the military authorities merely for supporting the communist party. Never again,’ she says.

It is not yet clear exactly what changes Abe is proposing, but he has successfully watered down the peace clause in the past. And the prime minister possesses the strength in Japan’s parliament to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary for a formal constitutional revision.

It is less clear whether he can secure a simple majority in a public referendum, which is also required for revision. Currently, 50 per cent of Japanese voters oppose any constitutional change, with 63 per cent against revising Article 9. It is likely Abe will take a step-by-step approach – first proposing non-controversial amendments to get the public comfortable with revision, and then introducing more contentious changes.

He is floating a broad range of possible constitutional changes, seen by many as sweeteners, to camouflage his real ambitions. Gimmicks include a constitutional amendment mandating free higher education. Abe is also suggesting giving legal status to Japan’s Self Defence Forces, a potentially popular policy when 87 per cent of voters think Japan’s security is threatened, especially by North Korea and China, according to a Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) poll.

Civil-liberties advocates and peace activists are already organizing resistance. In May thousands of demonstrators gathered in sites across the country to protest against Abe’s controversial new Conspiracy Act, which allows greater surveillance of those suspected of a crime. Opposition activists see the Act as a pretext for silencing dissent ahead of a referendum on constitutional reform. ‘This bill can be interpreted to make me a target of surveillance, just for participating in an anti-government protest like this one,’ said one young female protestor.

Ironically, Abe’s actions are reviving the vocal opposition and activism he seeks to quell.

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