Constitutional change may be a matter of when, not if
May 3 is Japan’s Constitution Memorial Day, which commemorates the enactment of the postwar constitution in 1947 – and I am beginning to think that a groundswell in favor of constitutional change might be building.
I have generally been skeptical about the prospects for revising the postwar constitution on any meaningful timeline. It’s not because I think that a majority of Japanese are committed pacifists; if that was ever true, it has certainly become less true over time. What I think has been true is that whatever Japanese voters have felt about the constitution, constitutional revision has consistently been identified as the lowest policy priority for the public when asked. It was precisely this lack of urgency about revision that made it unlikely that Abe Shinzō, who has zealously pursued revision for his entire political career, would succeed at navigating constitutional changes through the tortuous revision process. Polls consistently showed that even as the public grew more amenable to constitutional change, it opposed constitutional change under Abe’s leadership. (I discussed some of these dynamics here.)
The Asahi Shimbun has conducted a mostly annual nationwide survey of public attitudes regarding the postwar constitution since 1950, which, although the methodology and the wording of questions has changed over time, nevertheless provides a useful long-term look (jp) at how attitudes toward the constitution and constitutional revision have changed. This year, the paper mailed surveys to 3,000 individuals from 334 voting districts across the country, with an average of nine voters per district; it received 1892 valid replies.
What it found is that for the first time since 2013, a majority of 56% believes that it is necessary to revise the constitution, compared with only 37% who believe revision is unnecessary. Of course, this is not the first time a majority has favored revision – majorities generally supported revision from 1997 to 2013 – but the internals (which Asahi helpfully shares here) point to several trends that suggest that the outlook for revision could be shifting.
Young Japanese’s attachment to the 1947 constitution is waning
In general, the older a respondent was, the likelier he or she was to admire the constitution and oppose revision. Respondents 70 and above were the only age bracket in which a plurality felt that revision is unnecessary (45% in favor, 49% opposed); only 51% of those 60-69 supported revision. The next lowest support for revision was among those 18-29, 57% of which supported revision.
There is a similar age gap when respondents were asked where they think that the current constitution is, on the whole, a “good constitution.” The headline number here – 58% think it is a good constitution, 32% do not – conceals a significant difference between Japanese 60-69 and over-70 (of whom 62% and 66% respectively think the constitution is good) and Japanese under 60. In both the 40-49 and 50-59 age brackets, only 54% of respondents agreed; among the 18-29 and 30-39 brackets, only 50% agreed.
Another indicator of weak attachment to the constitution among young Japanese can be seen in the reasons given for supporting revision. The most common reason for supporting revision among all respondents who think constitutional change is necessary is that “national defense provisions are inadequate” (29%), but the second most common reason is that the constitution is “getting old” (27%). These two reasons are tied as the most common in the 18-29 bracket, but in the 30-39 and 40-49 brackets, the constitution’s age was overwhelmingly the popular choice, favored by 34% and 38% of respondents effectively.
It appears unmistakable that for younger Japanese, the constitution is not sacrosanct.
Support for changing but not abandoning Article 9 – and strong support for emergency powers
However, despite a majority supporting constitutional revision in principle, a significant majority (59%) also think that Article 9 – the “peace clause” – should be left unchanged, ironically with some of the strongest majorities among young Japanese. (In the 30-39 bracket, 66% said they think Article 9 should be preserved, the largest majority among any age bracket.)
That said, a majority of 55% favors the LDP’s proposal to add a third clause to Article 9 that would explicitly clarify the status of the Self-Defense Forces – even though the public overwhelmingly (78%) thinks that the SDF’s existence does not currently violate the constitution.
Beyond supporting the LDP’s modest proposal for adding a clause to Article 9, the public appears especially keen to support the LDP’s proposals for adding provisions that would strengthen the government’s powers in the event of natural disasters and other emergencies. When asked whether they support a proposal that would enable the cabinet to bypass the Diet and issue ordinances that temporarily restrict the public’s rights, a majority of 59% said they did, with majorities greater than 60% in every age bracket except 70-and-older (which backed it with a slenderer majority of 51%). The LDP’s other state of emergency proposal – extending Diet members’ terms in the event that an election cannot be held – attracts slightly less support, with an overall majority of 54% in favor to 39% opposed, again with those older 70 supporting the proposal by a smaller margin than any other age bracket.
The implication of these figures is that the LDP could have a window of opportunity to secure public approval for the revisions it drafted after Abe declared in 2017 that he wanted revisions approved by 2020.
Has Ukraine shifted the public on national defense?
The survey also asked a series of questions about national security issues, likely reflecting both the impact of the war in Ukraine and the Kishida government’s impending review of core national security policies. This data suggests that thus far, the war in Ukraine has not resulted in public support for a dramatic shift in Japan’s security policies. For example, 77% think that the three non-nuclear principles – prohibiting the possession, manufacture, and introduction of nuclear weapons – should be maintained. 73% think that diplomacy and economic cooperation are more important than the military for national security. 49% are opposed to Japan’s acquisition of capabilities that would enable the SDF to strike enemy targets.
It bears noting that younger Japanese showed some of the strongest support for the status quo in response to these questions, suggesting that their support for constitutional revision is not necessarily a sign of a hawkish shift among the young, although 27% of the 18-29 bracket said that the military is more important for national security than diplomacy, a higher share than any age bracket.
That said, the public is anxious about Japan’s security environment: 96% say that they feel greatly worried (60%) or somewhat worried (36%). The war in Ukraine has had at least one impact on public opinion, however. The share of respondents who say that they feel Russia is a military threat is higher (92%) than the shares for China (90%) or North Korea (87%), with 58% saying that they strongly feel that Russia is a military threat, a fine example of the availability bias. This pattern generally held across age groups, with the only difference being that younger Japanese tend to be more in the “somewhat worried” category than the “greatly worried.”
Finally, this poll suggests that the public by and large supports the 2015 legal changes to enable the SDF to exercise Japan’s right of collective self-defense and come to the aid of U.S. forces, with an overall majority (56% either definitely or somewhat in favor to 39% definitely or somewhat opposed) and majorities in every age bracket approving when asked whether Japan should exercise collective self-defense if the U.S. were to become engaged in a war in the area surrounding Japan.
Thus, while there may be some change in how the public thinks about national security – the recent poll in the Nikkei Shimbun, for example, that showed that 55% support the LDP’s proposal to raise defense spending to 2% of GDP – I am guessing that elite opinion has shifted farther and faster than the public on national security, suggesting that the Kishida government will have to work carefully to ensure that the public is behind any changes included in its policy review.
What happens next
The public’s support for constitutional change may create a new window of opportunity for the LDP to advance its proposals – Kishida used his Constitutional Memorial Day message to reiterate his support for revision – but the procedural barriers that have complicated revision in the past remain salient. Kishida may be a more effective messenger for constitutional change than Abe was, but he will still have to ensure that the pro-revision parties are on the same page regarding how to approach constitutional change. He will also have to determine how to handle the left opposition’s stance on constitutional change: the Constitutional Democratic Party, the leading center-left opposition party, is (jp) skeptical of constitutional change in general and opposed to the LDP’s proposals in particular. The LDP has been reluctant to push for revision without the participation of opposition parties in the debate, not least because if it appeared that the ruling party was “steamrolling” amendments through the Diet, it could result in a public backlash in a national referendum.
The question then is whether the prime minister and the LDP can leverage public tolerance for constitutional change to bring the opposition to the table. The public’s support for state of emergency provisions and growing fears that war could occur in Asia – in the Asahi poll, 80% said that they have become more concerned about the possibility of war between Japan and other countries in the region after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – may create an opening for revision, particularly after this year’s upper house elections, since there will be a three-year span before the government needs to face the voters again.
There is no reason to think that this will be easy, and Kishida may prefer to spend his political capital on more tangible achievements. But it is increasingly apparent that the barriers to constitutional change are gradually eroding, suggesting that it is increasingly a matter of when the constitution is changed, not if it is changed.
Ideally, every edition of this newsletter will include a roundup of noteworthy links in addition to the commentary.
Kishida won’t attend (jp) Yoon Seok-youl’s inauguration as South Korea’s president but it is possible that Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa will…The Constitutional Democrats have issued (jp) a proposal for revising the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement…A Kyodo News survey of top companies found (jp) 31% said that the weak yen (currently ¥130.20/$1) is bad, while none said it was good…Ishiba Shigeru wants (jp) the Kishida government to review the decision — instigated by then-Defense Minister Kōno Tarō — to cancel the Aegis Ashore missile defense system…On a visit to Thailand, Kishida and Thai Prime Minister Prayuth signed (en) a defense equipment transfer agreement…White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says (en) not to read too much into President Biden’s Asia itinerary this month, which has him visiting Seoul before going to Tokyo.
Finally, I will likely share a featured tweet that may or may not be related to Japanese politics. My followers on Twitter probably know that I am an enthusiastic fan of the Chicago Cubs and was pleased when they signed the Hiroshima Carp’s Suzuki Seiya in March.
Suzuki was just named the National League’s Rookie of the Month for April, after batting .279/.404/.529 with four HRs and 14 RBIs. His award earned a tweet from former Chicago mayor and current U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, who offered some recommendations for Chicago living ahead of this week’s crosstown series against the White Sox.
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