Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, arrives at his official residence in Tokyo. (Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg)

Abe Eroding Japan Pacifism for Own Legacy, Opposition Chief Says

(Bloomberg) -- The leader of Japan’s main opposition party said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is treating the nation’s 70-year-old pacifist constitution as a “toy” in an effort to define his own political legacy.

“He wants to change it in whatever way he can so that he can go down in history,” Yukio Edano, head of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said in an interview at his Tokyo office on Monday. “In fact, everything depends on how you change it. You can change it for the worse or for the better. To make constitutional revision an end in itself is frivolous.”

Abe Eroding Japan Pacifism for Own Legacy, Opposition Chief Says

Abe proposed in May to change the wording of the pacifist Article 9 to clarify the legal status of the nation’s Self-Defense Forces, a move that could spark concern in neighboring countries that suffered under past Japanese aggression. A growing threat from North Korea has prompted calls for Japan, a U.S. ally, to gain offensive capabilities.

While Abe’s party retained its two-thirds majority in parliament in an October election, the plan to change a document that has remained untouched since the postwar U.S. occupation remains controversial. A poll by the Nikkei newspaper published in November found 44 percent of respondents agreed with Abe’s proposal, while 41 percent opposed it.

Abe backed down from an initial call to change the constitution before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, saying lately that there’s no fixed timeline. Even so, his ruling coalition has a window of opportunity after the election win to use its two-thirds majority to pass an amendment in both houses. It must then be approved in a national referendum.

Missile Announcement

Abe has sought the changes so that members of the Self-Defense Forces aren’t at risk of being called unconstitutional. His ruling Liberal Democratic Party last week published a summary of its constitutional discussions that featured Abe’s plan, as well as an alternative proposal to define the SDF more clearly and delete the part of Article 9 that renounces “ground, sea and air forces.”

Edano, a 53-year-old former lawyer, said there was nothing in the document he could agree with. He said there should be no discussion of Article 9 unless laws passed in 2015 to allow Japan to defend other countries were first repealed, saying they breached the constitution.

In the parliamentary session starting next month, Edano plans to press the Abe government on its plan to buy long-range missiles that could in theory be used to strike North Korea. He said the announcement of the plan -- months after the main budget request -- was timed to avoid discussion during the election campaign of whether Japan should arm itself with such weapons.

Political Strategy

Edano served as Chief Cabinet Secretary and trade minister during the then-Democratic Party of Japan’s time in office from 2009 to 2012. He formed the CDPJ as the opposition splintered ahead of the October election, and emerged as leader of the largest opposition party -- albeit with only 54 of the 465 seats in the lower house.

Nine percent of respondents to a poll conducted by the Asahi newspaper this month said they supported Edano’s party, which favors redistribution of income, fairer educational opportunities and stable employment. That compared with 36 percent for Abe’s LDP.

Edano said he didn’t want to dilute his party’s identity by combining with other opposition groups such as the Party of Hope, which finished third in the election. That strategy had failed over the past five years, he said.

“That can never happen,” he said. “We must make the CDPJ bigger by winning elections. We are not thinking of trying to succeed by reorganizing parties. That was the biggest reason why the DPJ failed to meet public expectations.”

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.