Constitution and Politics in Contemporary Japan
Valdai Papers
Want to know more about global politics?
Subscribe to our distribution list
Nobuo Shimotomai

Professor, Hosei University, Tokyo (since 1988); Senior Research Fellow, Japan Institute of International Affairs (since 2014)

Valdai Discussion Club

Japanese politics is now in flux. By the sudden dissolution of Diet by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this September political landscape is shifting quite rapidly. Abe originally wanted to utilize unpreparedness of opposition parties for election to escape his domestic situation, but his plan was ill founded and was resulting in unintended path. Popular governor of Tokyo, Ms. Yuriko Koike, former Minister of Defense, took initiative to challenge by setting up her new Party called Kibou, or Party of Hope. Color of her banner is ‘reformist-conservative’ in tone.

  Nobody could expect that newly elected leader of the largest oppositionist party of Democrats, Seiji Maehara declared that his party candidates should join into Koike’s newly born party Hope, thus dissolving his stronghold of Democrats. Thus began a political realignment of the party system and leadership, though none is sure of the outcome of this unexpected political drama.

Abe’s original plan was apparently miscalculated. Premier Abe’s plan to win at the October 22 election, however, was not totally wrong. Negotiation of political unification by Ms. Koike and Maehara turned into disarray, partly because Koike wanted to exclude ‘liberal-left’ elements among the Democrats, by requesting that only those candidates who declared in favor of the constitutional reform can enlist the Party of Hope. This move called strong counter-reaction not only among the Democrats but also among those who are stick to the pacifistic Constitution that prohibits to obtain military force by article nine. Liberal–oppositionist wing of Democrats, in its turn, set up new oppositionist party called the Constitutional Democrats. Russians may recall Cadets in 1905. Yukio Edano, Maehara’s rival, former cabinet secretary of Premier Naoto Kan government (2010-2012), initiated this new Party.

So far, public opinions are also reacting quickly, but initial opinion poll result shows that Prime Minister Abe’s LDP coupled with Komeito Party is likely to keep status quo in the next election, whilst the oppositionists are divided into two camps; one is Koike-Maehara coalition which is in favor of the constitutional reform, and those oppositionists like Cadets, Social democrats and Communists, who are categorically against constitutional reforms.

Seemingly, Abe’s plan to change constitution minimally, by incorporating a new provision on Self-Defense Force to the article nine, looks moderate, compared with his previous plan to change it totally, but this prospect seems also premature to forecast.

Firstly, prospect of constitutional change is dependent on the new political alignment after the election October 22. The newly emerging parliament is likely to be not bipolar along the conservative-liberal-left divide, but triple polarized, where LDP-Komeito are challenged by middle of the road or centrist of Koike and Maehara’s Hope, and liberal-left coalition led by newly emerging Cadets. The popularity of the third party Cadet is now gaining momentum, partly because Ms. Koike carelessly and categorically declared to exclude the ‘liberals’ who are devoted to the present constitution. Communists are softening their position to help Cadets and others to counter Premier Abe’s proposal on constitution. So far, popularity of the Hope is not so promising, but Cadet is getting momentum.

Secondly, more important is undecided character among the LDP-Komeito coalition on this initiative by Abe. The LDP in the cold war period in their unchallenged forty years reign never seriously took initiative to change it, though they nominally declared to do so. It implies that LDP has also strong opposition to change status quo. Komeito is also pacifist in character and slow to react to change it, at least so far.

Premier Abe’s new initiative on this issue is more or less realistic, and is nearing Komeito’s moderate position. But still they may realign to centrist tendency on this touchy issue. Maehara is not hostile to Abe initiative. 

However, amorphous centrists are all the more uncertain, partly because Governor Koike has openly challenging leadership of Prime Minister Abe. Centrists are inclined to change the Constitution, but the real question is how to change and to what extent, totally or partially. There is no consensus on it. After all, too much politicized power struggle is continuing, and likely to follow even after the Diet election and preventing from moving to change political body of Japan.

Valdai Discussion Club