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Prime Minister Abe Aims for National Referendum to Revise the Constitution






By Fumito Ishibashi


Shinzo Abe secured a third three-year term of office in the latest leadership election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on September 20. The number of days he has been at the helm as Japan’s prime minister stood at 2,461 as of the same day.


Prime Minister Abe’s number of days as the nation’s political leader will reach several benchmarks in 2019:

  • He will reach 2,616 days in office on February 22, 2019 — equal to that of Shigeru Yoshida, known as the architect of post-World War II Japan.
  • On June 6, 2019, he will reach 2,720 days as prime minister — ranking him with Hirobumi Ito, one of the most distinguished statesmen of the Meiji era (1868-1912).


If Abe serves as prime minister for the coming three years, until the expiration of his term as LDP president, he will become the longest-serving prime minister in the history of Japan’s constitutional governments. His service will have surpassed even that of former Prime Minister Taro Katsura, the longest so far at a total of 2,886 days over three terms in office from 1901 and 1913.



Why did Abe seek the reins of power for the third term? While he was well-aware of criticism from some quarters that he has been the “sole winner for too long,” there were several reasons for him to continue.


Ensuring Japan’s Voice in Diplomacy


One of the major reasons has to do with the weight and continuity of the nation’s diplomacy. The tenure of the president of the United States is up to two four-year terms, or eight years. The term of service for the German chancellor is four years, but no limits are imposed on chancellorship reappointments — Angela Merkel has been in power for nearly 13 years. Although it is questionable whether Russia can be called a democracy, President Vladimir Putin has been in the top post for a total of 14 years. China’s Communist Party, meanwhile, changed its constitution earlier this year so that President Xi Jinping can legally be president of China for life.


Worthy of note in this connection is that any nation’s top leaders have little sway in the international community for their first and last year in power.


Prime Minister Abe, after attending summit meetings of major powers many times, seems to have understood that the LDP’s presidency, if limited to a maximum of two three-year terms, would mean he had only four years to effectively engage other countries diplomatically. Presumably, he thought that insufficient for Japan to establish relationships on an equal footing with leaders of other major countries.



It can safely be said he believes in his heart that three three-year terms — that is, nine years — should be deemed a “standard tenure of prime ministership.”


Abe’s Goals for the Next 3 Years


What, then, is Mr. Abe going to do in his remaining three-year term of office? Regarding this, immediately after his win in the party contest, the Prime Minister told a crowd of LDP legislators:


I am determined to conclude Japan’s postwar diplomacy with the aim of making sure that Japan can continue to be a peaceful and stable country. Furthermore, let’s work together for addressing the task of revising the Constitution, a decades-old pledge of our party since the foundation of the LDP [in 1955].


Issues with Russia will be among the first tackled in the envisaged recapitulation of Japan’s postwar diplomacy. Still outstanding is the task of resolving the issue of sovereignty over the three islands and a group of islets off northeastern Hokkaido seized by Russia after Japan's surrender in World War II.


This dispute must be resolved for the eventual conclusion of a peace treaty between Japan and Russia. It was also a long-cherished dream of the Prime Minister’s late father, Shintaro Abe, who struggled to normalize Tokyo-Moscow diplomatic relations when he served as foreign minister.



Russian President Putin, perhaps anticipating Prime Minister Abe’s initiative, came out with a proposal on September 12 that Japan and Russia conclude a peace treaty “with no preconditions attached, before the end of the year.”


While admittedly Putin’s overture is likely an effort to entrap Japan, the fact that Moscow has referred to a specific deadline for bilateral negotiations can also be considered an excellent opportunity for Japan to push forward its own resolution on the outstanding issues. There may even be a chance of a breakthrough on the territorial issue before the year’s end.


Another issue to be tackled early is the relationship between Japan and North Korea.


Prime Minister Abe has repeatedly said he wants to settle once and for all the problem of Japanese citizens having been abducted by North Korea. Japan, which wants its citizens back, will want to find a resolution on the strength of economic assistance from Tokyo to Pyongyang and the opportunity for North Korea to normalize bilateral ties.


For this to be accomplished, Prime Minister Abe will need to effectively utilize the ongoing moves of the United States and South Korea toward the North as leverage, and his diplomatic clout will be at stake in this respect.



Revision of Japan’s Post-war Constitution


Both problems in relations with Russia and North Korea are thorny. The challenge of revising the Constitution, however, is even thornier. Prime Minister Abe said in a recent exclusive interview with The Sankei Shimbun:


The public, of course, has a decisive say regarding the wisdom of revising the Constitution. Failure of the members of the Diet to address the task of initiating amendments to the Constitution and thereby hampering the people from exercising their right to vote for or against revising the basic law should be condemned by the public as “shirking” Diet members’ responsibilities as lawmakers.


As his statement shows, the Prime Minister is focused on a national referendum on revision of the supreme law, rather than the Diet’s processes or actions to initiate amendments in the legislature.


The 2016 defeats of British Prime Minister David Cameron and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in their respective national plebiscites, and their subsequent resignations, must have brought home to Prime Minister Abe the precariousness involved in a national referendum.



In the case of Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, Prime Minister Abe’s own preference would have been to delete the second paragraph of the article. However, he has chosen not to pursue this course. Instead, he will propose adding a clause to Article 9 to explicitly stipulate the existence of the Self-Defense Forces.


The decision is not a reflection of his concern about the views of the LDP’s coalition party, Komeito. It is rather a product of the Prime Minister’s pragmatic calculation of how to clear the minimum possible requirements for ensuring a majority vote in favor of constitutional revision in a national referendum.


The Prime Minister will most likely continue looking for the best possible timing for the referendum, taking the remainder of his term into account. The schedule for the Diet’s action to initiate revision to the top law will subsequently be set by counting backwards from the referendum date. In a news conference on September 20, he said resolutely:


The path to constitutional revision is a thorny one, but it is of pivotal importance to the task of generally concluding Japan’s postwar diplomacy. I have had the honor of receiving strong support from party members through the LDP’s presidential election this time. This is a driving force in my decision to forge ahead with major reforms and to demonstrate strong leadership for the three years yet to come.  



(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)





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