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Japan election offers Fumio Kishida ‘golden’ chance to reform pacifist constitution

Hisao Terasawa’s fellow voters might be fretting over rising fuel prices, stagnant wages and even shrinking chocolate bars, but the 73-year-old is focused on a single issue ahead of Japan’s upper house election: fear that China could attack Taiwan.

“For too long, Japan has ignored the issue of how to defend itself,” said Terasawa, who owns a sports leisure business in Niigata prefecture, along Japan’s north-western coast that faces the Russian far east.

“There is a blind faith that China won’t invade [Taiwan] but what are we to do if there was an invasion? Look at what happened. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was unprovoked.” 

On Sunday, he plans to back Kazuhiro Kobayashi, a candidate from the ruling Liberal Democratic party, solely because of its commitment to boost defence spending and consideration of first-strike capabilities against enemy bases.

Terasawa’s stance is an indication that public attitudes are shifting in favour of strengthening Japan’s defence capabilities in the wake of the war in Ukraine and China’s rising military ambitions.

It also reveals what is at stake in Sunday’s election. On the surface, the contest appears to be about the economy and soaring commodity prices that have squeezed living standards and created a phenomenon called shrinkflation, in which consumers are offered less for their money. But experts said the outcome could have profound consequences for Japan’s security and defence strategy — and might even open the way for revision of its war-renouncing constitution.

Fumio Kishida’s ruling coalition has to win a two-thirds majority to change Japan’s pacifist constitution © Issei Kato/Reuters

According to a recent poll conducted by state broadcaster NHK, 42 per cent of those surveyed identified economic issues as their main policy interest but 17 per said foreign and security policy was their priority.

“It is probably the first time in about two decades that foreign policy and security has emerged on the front lines of an election,” said Takao Toshikawa, editor-in-chief of the political newsletter Insideline.

According to analysts, the US would welcome Japan taking on a bigger security role as President Joe Biden turns to alliances in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China.

On Sunday, half the members of Japan’s less powerful upper house of parliament will be elected through a mix of constituency and proportional representation votes. Recent polls suggest that the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito will win a majority of the 125 seats up for grabs on the back of steady public support for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

But to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, the ruling coalition needs to win at least 82 seats to maintain its two-thirds majority with the support of two minor parties.

The LDP, Komeito, Nippon Ishin and the Democratic Party for the People already hold a two-thirds majority in the lower house. In addition to that threshold in both houses of parliament, constitutional revision requires a majority of public support in a national referendum.

“The biggest hidden agenda of this election is constitutional reform,” said Masatoshi Honda, a political analyst and academic.

Experts are divided over whether Kishida, a moderate who was appointed prime minister in October, is in favour of reform, a life-long ambition for former premier Shinzo Abe, or whether he is pushing for constitutional change to secure the backing of Abe’s allies.

Either way, growing public acceptance and the uncertain geopolitical environment have opened up a genuine possibility that Kishida could become the first leader to revise the country’s constitution, which was written by US occupying forces after the second world war.

“It is ironic that a dovish prime minister is being pushed into constitutional revision,” Honda said. “But Kishida’s legacy may well end up being the first prime minister to touch the constitution.” 

In another sign of change, Komeito, a party of Buddhist pacifists opposed to revising the charter’s war-renouncing Article 9, included a campaign pledge for the first time that it would consider establishing the constitutional status of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. Article 9 stipulates that land, sea and air forces “will never be maintained”.

Kobayashi, the LDP candidate running in Niigata, said the time was ripe for a deeper discussion on constitutional revision during the election campaign.

“In the past, there was an atmosphere of resistance whenever I broached the subject of the constitution,” he said. “But nowadays, people listen without feeling uncomfortable.”

If Kishida manages to expand the ruling coalition’s margin of control in the upper house, he will be granted “three golden years” before he will face another election in 2025. Proponents of constitutional reform said that should give him enough time to cement his political base and convince a still-cautious public to embrace change.

Yuko Mori, Kobayashi’s main rival from the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, warned that any attempt to push through the revision risked damaging relations with neighbours China and South Korea.

“The trust Japan has built with the pacifist constitution is deeper than we think,” Mori said. “A build-up of arms will lead to tension in the region.”

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