Abe Shinzo’s assassination shocked the nation. Will constitutional revision be on the post-election agenda?
Former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was assassinated on Friday, July 8 while campaigning in Nara, Japan. The killing shocked Japan, a country with virtually no gun violence to speak of. World leaders swiftly conveyed their condolences to Abe’s family and to the country. Current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, speaking last night, declaimed it as an “act of cowardly barbarism.”
As the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, Abe was a powerful figure within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). After stepping down for health reasons in 2020, Abe and his faction (the largest in the party) continued to exert a strong influence over LDP policy. On Friday, Abe was using his public profile to campaign for fellow LDP members up for election.
That election is only two days away. On July 10, Japanese voters will head to the polls to vote for candidates running for seats in the House of Councillors, more commonly called the upper house of the Japanese Diet (in contrast with the lower house, the House of Representatives). Roughly half (124) of the upper house’s 245 seats are up for election, 74 of which are in single- or multi-member districts, with another 50 allocated by nationwide proportional vote.
The Election Goes On
And the election will go on: after a halt to campaigning yesterday, politicians will once again be on the streets this Saturday, making their final pitch to the Japanese public. "We must absolutely defend free and fair elections, which are the basis of democracy,” said a shaken Kishida following Abe’s death. “We will proceed with our election campaign tomorrow as planned with the firm conviction that we will never yield to violence."
This will be the first national election since the prime minister took office in October 2021. As a member of the lower house, he won’t be on the ballot himself—but like all major political figures in Japan, Kishida has been campaigning for upper house candidates. And as prime minister, how well the LDP performs will reflect on Kishida himself and his role as a leader of the party. The ruling LDP-Komeito coalition will need to win at least 56 of the contested seats to retain its majority, but LDP insiders—and public polls—have higher expectations.
The election could also have longer-lasting implications for Japan. A sizeable victory for the LDP-Komeito coalition, along with two other right-wing parties (the Democratic Party for the People and Nippon Ishin no Kai), could give those four parties the two-thirds majority necessary to put a revision of the Japanese constitution before the public in a national referendum.
What’s at Stake with Constitutional Revision?
Constitutional revision is a frequent issue in Japanese politics, with pro-revision parties aiming at two issues.
One of these debated constitutional changes would allow the cabinet to declare a state of emergency and act on its own, without waiting for a vote in the Diet. Proponents argue that the Japanese state needs stronger powers to act in times of crisis, while opponents cast such a revision as an unnecessary and anti-democratic step. The debate came into sharp focus during the pandemic, as the Japanese government was not legally allowed to mandate the kinds of restrictions seen in the West. Yet opponents of giving the cabinet greater powers have pointed to Japan’s successful COVID-19 response as a counterpoint to such concerns.
The other potential change, and the one most commonly associated with ‘constitutional revision,’ is a change to Article 9, the “peace clause” of Japan’s 1947 constitution. Under Article 9, Japan renounces “war as a sovereign right of the nation” and commits to not maintaining “war potential.” Yet this far-reaching prohibition on military forces has not prohibited Japan from maintaining the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). Moreover, Article 9 has been reinterpreted over the decades, slowly providing Japan with more flexibility in how to employ the SDF. For example, in 2014 the Abe government decided that collective self-defense (a right of all nations under the UN charter) was not a violation of Article 9. Still, outright changes to Article 9 have remained a priority for many within the LDP, including Abe, who see it as an obstacle to Japan taking its place on the world stage as a ‘normal nation.’ The most-discussed proposals are the addition of a clause formalizing the existence of the SDF, or one clarifying the right of Japan to self-defense. Despite Abe’s long tenure, he was never able to achieve his goal of revision, and many thought that Abe’s association with revision would have made that revision more difficult under Kishida. How that changes with Abe’s death is far from clear at this point: will revision be seen as a confirmation of Abe’s legacy, or will his passage from the political stage remove some of the opposition built up over the years?
Japanese Public Priorities Are Domestic and Economic—not Constitutional
Despite LDP members’ enthusiasm for these revisions, the Japanese public remains unconvinced that revising the constitution is necessary. Per a June NHK poll, a third of Japanese (37%) see constitutional revision as necessary, while 23 percent believe it is not, with another 32 percent neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the proposition. Nor is it a priority for the public in this weekend’s election. Instead, the public would prefer that the government focus on more immediate concerns. NHK polling from June 24–26 finds economic policy tops the list of public priorities in the upcoming election: 43 percent cite it as their top priority, with social security (16%) and diplomatic and security policy (15%) tied for a distant second. Constitutional revision lags all of these, with just five percent seeing it as their top priority.
While domestic policies tend to dominate elections as a matter of course, the public’s economic concerns are unusually front-and-center, as the economic disruptions felt around the world following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have not left Japan unscathed. Yomiuri polling from late June shows that Japanese households are feeling the burden of rising prices on their household (35% to a great extent, 48% to some extent), and give the government low marks on its response to that rising cost of living (71% disapprove). Higher prices are even affecting zoo animals: at one zoo in Hakone, penguins are struggling to adapt to being served cheaper and apparently less-appealing fish.
The weather has also put a public focus on prices. Japan spent last week sweltering through a record-breaking heat wave, putting several thousand older Japanese in the hospital with heatstroke and straining the national power grid. It has raised public concerns about potential blackouts: a July 1–3 NHK poll finds that a majority of Japanese are either very (31%) or somewhat (43%) concerned about Japan’s supply of electrical power. The heat isn’t the only factor, either: as an energy-importing nation, Japanese energy costs have risen sharply this year, driven by a combination of the war in Ukraine and Japan’s own weakening yen.
This focus on domestic concerns and the cost of living doesn’t mean the Japanese public is uninterested in foreign affairs or Japan’s own defense. Far from it. Polling since the war in Ukraine began has pointed to a notable shift among everyday Japanese and consistent support for stronger defense capabilities and a higher level of defense spending. That has persisted: early June polling from NTV finds that most Japanese (72%) support strengthening Japan’s defense capabilities, and pre-election NHK polls find that just over half (52%) support an increase in Japanese defense spending.
What does this portend for the post-election political environment? Rising public concerns about Japan’s security environment, coupled with public support for a stronger Japanese defense capability could give Kishida an opportunity to revise Japanese security posture in a way that Abe was unable to achieve. But Kishida will have to keep a close eye on the public’s domestic priorities. Spending too much time chasing long-held LDP goals at the expense of addressing more pressing public problems is unlikely to be a recipe for political success.