Odds of Shinzo Abe’s untimely death pushing Japan down a militarised & nationalistic path low

Perceptions of Abe as a right-wing "nationalist" have persisted among some.

Kayla Wong | July 15, 2022, 05:08 AM

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Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister of Japan, passed away on July 8 after he was assassinated while on the campaign trail in Nara city.

Death shocked the world

Japan was thrown into a state of shock, with many in disbelief about what had transpired when the news first broke out. Thereafter, the country went into mourning, with mourners laying flowers at the spot where he fell, and thousands more showing up to send him off during his funeral procession, and pay their final respects to a leader they held in high regard.

Media reports – both domestic and international coverage – had cast Abe in a positive light, with local reports having an almost reverential tone. Given his legacy as a prominent statesman, and his long governance of the country that span almost eight years – a rarity in Japan’s revolving door of prime ministers – it’s likely more than just a simplistic case of not speaking ill of the dead.

Even China’s official response had been subdued, with Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian extending the country’s condolences to Abe’s family, and acknowledging the “improvement and development of China-Japan relations”.

And yes, even with the Chinese internet expressing glee at his death, with some openly celebrating by dancing at a club, there appears to have been an effort made by the Chinese government to tamp down on the impression that the Chinese people are rejoicing over Abe’s death.

Notably, state-backed media Global Times (GT), known for its belligerent stance and fiery tone, attempted to draw a line between “netizens” expressing their “love and hate” freely and “elites”, who are able to “transcend emotion” and “calmly analyse the international issue”.

Abe's reputation overseas as a "nationalist" and a "revisionist" lingers

Not all approved of Abe, however, as they pointed out that he was a nationalist who never apologised for Japan's war crimes, and that he sought to reinterpret Japan's wartime history through textbook revisions.

Perhaps most infamously, Abe was known for his 2013 visit to Yasukuni shrine, which is a source of controversy as it honours Class-A war criminals who committed crimes against peace. He stopped visiting, however, when the move sparked massive backlash from China and South Korea.

He continued to refrain from visiting the shrine during his tenure as prime minister, only resuming his visits once he stepped down.

There have also been some scattered discussions about the possibility of Abe's death leading to a revival of nationalism in Japan, should Abe's supporters use his death to push for a "conservative transformation in Japanese politics", as GT wrote in a highly controversial op-ed.

Some have also wondered if Abe's death would lead to the amendment of the American written post-war pacifist constitution – something that Abe had championed for years.

Such concerns are not without basis. Already, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won the upper house election with a sweeping victory. This win means that current Prime Minister Kishida has the votes he needs to push ahead with Abe’s lifetime ambition of constitutional revision.

And he has wasted no time in the current favourable climate, having already said a day after his party’s victory that he will push forward efforts that lead to the proposal of a revision “as soon as possible”.

Does LDP's landslide victory really signify a conservative shift in Japan?

But the LDP’s victory can’t exactly be attributed solely to the shock over Abe’s death.

It’s important to note that voter turnout was just 3 percentage points higher (52 per cent) than the second lowest turnout in 2019 during the post-war period, not to mention that in polling done by NHK prior to Abe’s murder, 54 per cent of respondents said they would vote in the election.

Furthermore, the LDP had already been ahead of the opposition in polls conducted before the election. The dominance of the LDP in Japanese politics -- only losing power on two occasions since 1955 -- also arguably contributed to its victory, especially when pitted against a fractured and disunited opposition.

So what does amending the constitution mean?

While Abe had hoped to modify large parts of the constitution, perhaps the most prominent goal was to amend the war-renouncing Article 9 to allow for an expansion of the Japanese Self-Defense Force’s (JSDF) capabilities.

Under Article 9, Japan technically doesn’t have a military, only “self-defence forces” that are allowed to act if the country is attacked, and which are not allowed to practice purely offensive tactics or possess strictly offensive weapons like ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons, bombers and aircraft carriers.

Abe had argued for adding a new clause that specifies the existence of the JSDF while upholding the article’s clauses that renounce war and ban Japan from maintaining the potential for war, according to The Mainichi.

Legitimisation for Japan's Self-Defense Forces

Yoichiro Sato, a professor of international relations at the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, told Mothership that Abe’s desire to expand the role of the JSDF is so that it can “enhance its standing within its bilateral alliance with the U.S., and also to cement this bilateral partnership for balancing against China, as well as with other like-minded countries like Australia and India in the Quad formation”.

Instead of "nationalism", he sees it as more of "a collective defence and multilateralism" that is prevailing in Japan.

"Japan wants to work with the U.S., Australia, India and Southeast Asian countries, but at the same time, it also wants to steer China into a more cooperative direction," he said, adding that while Abe himself might had been a nationalist, his policy was "strategic, realist and pragmatic".

And if this editorial piece from The Washington Post (WaPo) is any indication, the U.S. also appears to be welcoming – or at least, not disapproving – of Abe’s quest to legitimise Japan's self-defence forces.

The reasons cited by WaPo include Japan being able to uphold the free and open Indo-Pacific (the term originated from Abe, and Donald Trump used it subsequently) in conjunction with the U.S., and having the capabilities to balance against a more assertive China and North Korea’s nuclear potential.

For his part, Abe had sought to push for an increment of Japan’s defence budget from about 1 per cent of the country’s GDP to 2 per cent, in line with NATO countries. According to Sato, while Kishida won’t be trying to reach this target in one step, he might seek to increase the defence spending slightly to 1.1 or 1.2 per cent.

To do this, Japan would require funds that come up to a whopping 6 trillion yen, which is an amount that would require a consumption tax increase of more than 2 percentage points should it be covered through taxes alone, according to Nikkei Asia.

On top of this challenge, there are other competing budget items that range from social security to economic subsidies for Covid-impacted businesses, which might very well relegate constitutional amendment to the back burner.

As for criticisms that Abe is a revisionist who wanted to whitewash Japan's wartime atrocities, Sato said, "Abe saw that historical narratives are part of statecraft and that Japan being passive has put itself at a disadvantage."

"His resolve to not let Japan remain a sandbag in the war of historical narratives is widely shared in Japan, as the leftist teachers' union -- the vanguard of the liberal apologist narratives -- lost influence."

Why amending the constitution is not easy

No clear majority among the Japanese people

Constitutional amendment is also not something that can be easily accomplished.

A revision to the constitution is only possible if a national referendum is passed. And if massive protests in the past in response to Abe’s push for increased militarisation are any indication, it appears that not all in Japan are in favour of the idea.

Constitutional amendment also appears to be rather low on the list of priorities for voters, with most people wanting the government to focus on more urgent issues like rising prices and the underperforming economy. According to a Jiji exit poll cited by The Japan Times, only 3.2 per cent of those who voted for the LDP said they voted based on constitutional revision.

Also, according to a survey conducted by The Asahi Shimbun in 2021, most (61 per cent) supported the article as it is -- a slight drop from the previous year’s poll results, which is more than double the 30 per cent who prefer a revision.

Divisions within pro-revision camp

The pro-revision camp might also face an uphill battle trying to come to a consensus as to which clause to revise.

Abe had wanted to add a new paragraph that recognises and legitimises the existence of the JSDF – the two clauses that renounce war as a sovereign right and with presence of a military force will remain.

However, not everyone in the LDP agrees with this. There is division over the proposal as there are some who think this would contradict the ban on “war potential”, Hajime Funada, acting chairman of the LDP’s constitution revision panel told WaPo in 2017.

The LDP might also find it difficult to convince its junior coalition partner, Komeito – one of the LDP’s three coalition partners – to support the amendment. Komeito is ideologically pacifist, and its power base consists of a Buddhist organisation.

According to a survey conducted by Mainichi Shimbun, a majority (69 per cent) of Komeito winners of the upper house election said they opposed amending Article 9, making the party the only one out of all four coalition parties to oppose such a revision.

Loss of momentum without Abe as a rallying figure

In addition, without Abe around as a central figure to rally his faction, which is the largest in the party, there might be a loss of momentum towards the issue in the pro-revision camp within the LDP, Sato said.

He added that while Abe's faction consists of mostly conservatives, not all are close to Abe ideologically.

In fact, the Abe faction is in "real danger of possible split".

Japan doesn’t exactly need a constitutional revision to achieve what it wants

Also, given that it has already introduced collective defence measures starting from 1992 – when the country first passed the International Peace Cooperation Law – Japan doesn’t really need to revise its constitution to increase the size and scope of its Self-Defense Force.

Commenting on the issue in a Facebook post, Bilahari Kausikan, former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said constitutional amendment is unlikely to be a priority issue simply because “it is unnecessary”.

“Abe had already effectively expanded the range and scope of the missions the JSDF can undertake without amending the constitution. The constitutional changes he sought were minor and largely cosmetic,” he explained.

Sato shares similar views as well. “The amendment will simply endorse what’s been done already, and wouldn’t “give much of a new scope in the JSDF’s operations,” he said.

He added that when it comes down to it, the ruling LDP is faced ultimately with the following two choices: the "more urgent defence budget increase" or the "more symbolic constitutional amendment".

The priority, he opined, is for "a more pragmatic issue, which is the defence budget". He further explained that if increasing the defence budget is closer within reach as compared to the constitutional amendment issue, then Kishida might push for the former, even if he takes some heat in his public support ratio.

As for the constitutional amendment issue, he added, "just kick the can down the line".

Top image by Yuichi Yamazaki & Ian Walton via Getty Images