On July 10 Japan held elections for 125 of the 248 seats (i.e. 50%+1) in the House of Councillors, the upper house of the Japanese Parliament. The results of these elections have attracted special interest owing to a number of different factors. These factors include both immediate and long-term issues, and relate to both domestic and foreign policy.
The main long-term issue (at least in the time scale of the last two decades) affected by the elections is the potential amendment of the constitution, which has remained unchanged since 1947. Japan’s fundamental law was drafted under the “influence” (to put it diplomatically) of the US, during the latter country’s post-war occupation of Japan. And it was drafted in such a way as to make it as difficult as possible to amend. The most contentious part, and thus the part that is most likely to be amended, is Article 9, with it’s “no war” clause.
Many experts are of the opinion that, soon after the Constitution’s signing, the US changed its mind about this point of principle. Especially during the Korean War, when there were thoughts of allowing Japan to join in the fight against Communism on the Korean Peninsula. Shigeru Yoshida, Japan’s Prime Minister at the time, was allegedly able to cite Article 9 (written “not by us, but by you by Americans”) to justify the country’s refusal to participate directly in the conflict. Indirectly, Japan did participate in the Korean War and did very well out of it.
Shigeru Yoshida used this legalistic reasoning to justify Japan’s highly successful strategy during the post-war years, a period in which the main focus was on rebuilding and developing the national economy. Any direct involvement in wars waged by its new key ally – until recently its deadly enemy – would have disrupted that strategy. Unlike the Armed Forces of the Japanese Empire that failed, Japan’s advanced and powerful economy has become its main tool for achieving its foreign policy goals.
The last time Japan cited Article 9 as a ground for non-involvement in a foreign conflict was during the 1990-91 Gulf War, when Japan chose to provide its allies with financial rather than direct military support. Much to the annoyance of its “big brother”. It was in the mid-1990s that the Japanese government began to change its stance – and “We need to do something about Article 9” became a real political issue.
Ideas about what that “something” should have varied widely at first. At one end of the spectrum, some have argued that the prohibitions on Japan’s resorting to war to solve foreign policy problems, and on its possession of armed forces at all should be removed from the Constitution.
However the current proposal is much more modest: to add a paragraph to Article 9 in order to formalize what has long been a reality, namely the existence of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. In fact, Japan’s SDF are one of the most powerful armed forces in the world. But the Japanese government takes the view that at present there is no reason to include a reference to “armed forces” in the Constitution. For Japan’s neighbors, such a step would likely stir up memories of Japan’s imperial past. So the government’s position could be described as “We have armed forces but we won’t call them that, and we’ll limit ourselves to including our right to SDF in the Constitution.”
During Shinzo Abe’s recent 8-year term as Prime Minister, the government favored the above solution to the absurdity of Japan’s having military resources which it can use for this or that purpose, while being clearly prohibited by its Constitution from having armed forces. The ex-Prime Minister was assassinated just two days before the Upper House elections by an unhinged individual whose motivation is still unclear.
During his term as Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe was prevented from implementing the above solution by a number of difficulties. One of these has already been referred to: the procedure for amending the Constitution is highly complex. A second difficulty was that a significant section of Japanese society is opposed to any kind of amendment to the Constitution: “Our ‘American’ Constitution is good enough.”
The Liberal Democratic Party (Japan’s ruling party, formerly headed by Shinzo Abe, then by Yoshihide Suga, and now by Fumio Kishida, the current Prime Minister) has addressed these two main obstacles to change in all its election campaigns over the last few years. The most recent campaign was no exception, and the results of the vote have opened the way to initiating the procedure for amending the Constitution.
Of the 125 seats contested in the House of Councillors election, the LDP won 63 and its coalition partner, the “Buddhist” Komeito Party won 13. The two parties now have 143 seats (including their existing seats, which still have three years of their term to run) in the upper house. That gives them a comfortable majority, but it falls short of the two-thirds majority required to amend the Constitution. They will therefore need the support of two other parties, which have signaled their readiness to vote in favor of the amendments.
However, if Fumio Kishida’s first address following the elections is anything to go by, his government will first focus on a number of more urgent issues. These include various problems related to the conflict in Ukraine. Fumio Kishida’s government supported the US, Japan’s key ally, in its response to the conflict. Japan’s current position was set out by Fumio Kishida in the most recent G7 and NATO summits.
This journal has already highlighted one important aspect of Fumio Kishida’s response to the events in Ukraine (considered both in themselves and in terms of their regional significance). Tokyo’s main concern is that something like the Ukraine scenario may be repeated much closer to home, specifically, in relation to the Taiwan problem. That scenario, in turn, would justify Japan in building up its military potential, and it is likely that Japan will rely on this reasoning when following the constitutional amendment procedure.
Another, equally urgent, issue is the need to adjust Japan’s economic policy, which was initiated by Fumio Kishida’s late predecessor, and is popularly known as “Abenomics”. It should be noted that the economic woes that have afflicted Japan in recent years are the result of global factors, especially the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than of the policies adopted by Shinzo Abe following his election in 2012.
Nevertheless, it appears that Fumio Kishida intends to make some changes to the Abenomics policies. Largely because he needs to step out of his predecessor’s shadow and show that he has his own “political identity”. As readers will remember, Fumio Kishida served as Foreign Minister in Shinzo Abe’s first cabinet.
The government’s success in the recent upper house elections and its equally strong performance in the lower house elections held in Autumn 2021 show that Fumio Kishida is in just a strong position now, near the beginning of his term, as Shinzo Abe was in 2013. And that is a rare thing in the history of modern (i.e. post-Meiji restoration) Japan since the second half of the 19th century.
The COVID-19 pandemic, referred to above, is still a very real concern, as the number of infections are currently on the rise in what is being described as the “seventh wave”. And new strains of the virus are appearing. The impact of COVID-19 is being felt in many different ways. Most important, naturally, are the effects of the virus on healthcare and on peoples’ lives. And then there is its highly negative impact on Japan’s economy. A problem, by the way, that led to the resignations both of Shinzo Abe and his successor Yoshihide Suga. However those two main impacts of the pandemic – on public health and on the economy – are in a way opposed to each other, leaving governments with the difficult task of choosing an optimum strategy in fighting the pandemic.
Whatever the reasons, one thing is clear: as Fumio Kishida put it in a speech following his party’s triumph in the recent elections, the country is experiencing its “most serious problems since the end of the Second World War”.
Finally, while the recent upper house elections may appear at first sight to be of purely domestic significance, they do in fact have important foreign policy implications. If only because of Japan’s increasingly influential role on the international stage. Not for nothing has China seen fit to comment on the possible negative impact of the election results on the development of the geopolitical situation in the region.
It is fair to say that the background against which Japan’s relations with Russia will play out has now become more complicated that it was during Shinzo Abe’s administration. However that should not presage an absolute break in relations.
As a general rule, in deciding on its foreign policy, a country should not simply focus on its own wishes, but also seek to understand and take into consideration the views that underlie the conduct of its partners and/or adversaries.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.