Failing to change Japan’s constitution will be Abe’s greatest regret

Article 9, which prevents Japan from using war as a means of settling disputes, has long been hated by nationalists

Shinzo Abe was Japan's longest serving Prime Minister
Shinzo Abe was Japan's longest serving Prime Minister Credit: ISSEI KATO /REUTERS

Despite spending seven years and eight months in office - a record for a Japanese prime minister - Shinzo Abe did not achieve everything that he set out to do. His flagship “Abenomics” economic reforms ran out of steam and Tokyo remains at loggerheads with all its immediate neighbours over territorial issues. But Mr Abe’s biggest regret, analysts agree, will be his failure to revise a constitution that nationalists here believe was imposed on a defeated Japan by the vengeful Allies.  

Mr Abe has in the past described the 1947 constitution as “miserable” and has long sought to rewrite one particular section, Article 9, which states: “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes”. 

Nationalists rail that this paragraph has for more than 70 years stopped Japan becoming “a normal country”, with the ability to send troops overseas to help in multinational peacekeeping operations or conflicts such as the Gulf War. 

“His ultimate goal as a politician has always been to revise Article 9, to the point that it became something of an obsession”, said Koichi Nakano, a professor of politics at Tokyo’s Sophia University. 

“He firmly believes that the constitution was forced upon Japan after its defeat and he sees it as shameful to the nation, as unseemly and intolerable all these years later”, he told The Telegraph. 

That attitude can almost certainly be traced back to his childhood, which he spent growing up in a household with his maternal grandfather, Nobusuka Kishi, who was infamous for his brutal rule of the puppet state of Manchuko in the 1930s and was held as a war crimes suspect for three years after Japan’s defeat. 

Ultimately, Washington decided not to prosecute him because he would be helpful in ensuring that Tokyo remained allied to the US at a time when communism was gaining traction in the Far East. Kishi was elected prime minister in 1957 and served for nearly three-and-a-half years, although his time in office was punctuated by controversy, such as his decision to grant early release to a number of Japanese convicted by the Allies of war crimes. 

Mr Abe's views on the Japanese constitution are thought to have been heavily influenced by his maternal grandfather Nobusuka Kishi Credit: Pool/Reuters

“Mr Abe’s admiration for his grandfather is complex”, said Professor Nakano. “When he was growing up in the same house, Kishi had already retired from politics, but he had become an eminence grise behind the scenes and was strongly opposed to the constitution, which has almost certainly shaped Mr Abe’s own beliefs”.

Despite many years in power and, at times, the two-thirds majority in the Diet that he would have needed to force a revision of the constitution, Mr Abe never took that step, possibly because he feared an outpouring of public anger and a revolt from some of the more centrist members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party. 

Mr Abe was able to establish a National Security Council and, more controversially, the government announced that it was reinterpreting the terms of Article 9 to permit the Self-Defence Forces to engage in limited forms of collective self-defence with its allies. Bills to push through that change triggered the largest protests against the government since the student demonstrations of the 1960s, but were passed in September 2015. 

“Strategically, Mr Abe made sufficient reforms that he was able to increase and broaden defence sharing with the US and Japan’s other partners, at the same time as allowing more intelligence-sharing with the ‘Five Eyes’ community”, said Stephen Nagy, a professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University. 

“The Japanese public may be resistant to change, but if you look at public opinion polls say eight years ago and again today, it is clear that the Japanese people are far more aware of the security challenges facing the nation, including North Korean nuclear proliferation and Chinese intentions in the South China Sea and with regards to Japanese-held islands in the East China Sea”.

That support for incremental change, however, would not have translated to a full rewriting of Article 9, believes Professor Nakano.

“In spite of the right-wing rhetoric of Mr Abe and others about the humiliation and shame of the constitution, that does not match with the way the Japanese people overcame their war experience and remember it today”, he said. 

“The great bulk of Japanese were liberated by defeat in World War II as post-war democratisation made them freer and got rid of the military dictatorship”, he said. “The constitution brought peace to Japan, people understand that and they find Article 9 reassuring”.