Dispatch

The Wild Card

Is popular Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe trying to rewrite history with a radical nationalist new constitution?

TOKYO — Japanese voters are almost certain to give Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) an overwhelming victory in upper house elections on July 21. The election so far has focused largely on economic recovery -- and for once there's hope on the horizon. Abe's aggressive program of monetary easing and government spending has begun to jolt the economy out of nearly two decades of deflation and stagnation. The prime minister, who's been operating with only the lower house of the Diet backing him, is looking to regain a majority in the upper house to help push through his "third arrow" of structural reforms.

But voters who are pleased with his bold economic plans may also be unwittingly giving Abe free rein to pursue a radically nationalist agenda that risks destabilizing the already tense security situation in East Asia.

Abe and supporters in the conservative LDP, which already has a solid majority in the more powerful lower house, have made no secret of their desire revise the constitution, which has remain unchanged since it was adopted in 1947.

Abe failed with a similar agenda during his first, brief tenure as prime minister in 2006-2007, but the growing missile threat from North Korea and belligerent territorial claims by China have helped boost public support for revising the constitution's war-renouncing Article 9, and easing the ban on collective self defense, which prevents Japan's highly capable armed forces from coming to the aid of the United States or other allies, unless Japan or Japanese forces are attacked first.

Dramatic as these changes would be, the LDP's plans for amending the constitution go well beyond security issues, and could return Japan to an earlier and likely less benign version of itself. Draft revisions unveiled by the LDP last year would reduce press freedoms, designate the emperor as the head of state and impose new, nationalist-tinged requirements on citizens.  The public would be required, for example, to "respect" the rising-sun flag and "Kimigayo" national anthem -- symbols, in much of Asia, of Japan's World War II-era aggression and colonial expansion.

According to the LDP, the revised constitution would reflect "the history, culture and tradition of Japan. The current constitution includes some provisions that are based on the Western theory of natural rights. We believe these provisions should be revised."

Lawrence Repeta, a law professor at Tokyo's Meiji University, said in an interview that the proposed revisions, if adopted, "would create a Japan we don't know."

"What the nationalists want is to take Japan back to some utopian vision of the 1930s that never really existed," says Repeta, who has argued constitutional issues before Japan's Supreme Court.

To be sure, Abe has taken a softer line on nationalist issues than critics had feared when he resumed office in December. Abe's first term ended after just 10 months in part because his plans to revise the constitution and strengthen the military were out of touch with much of the public mood.

Although Abe's current cabinet is peppered with staunch conservatives, he appointed relative moderates to head the key defense and foreign ministries. Abe so far has refrained from visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 senior war criminals are enshrined, despite stating plans to do so during his campaign. Such visits invariably draw protests from China and South Korea. He has also acted with restraint in the face of repeated incursions by Chinese patrol ships into territorial waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands.

Instead, Abe has focused tightly on ending Japan's long economic slump -- first by pumping vast amounts of money into the economy and next by enacting a $116 billion stimulus package.

So far, it's worked. The economy grew at an annual rate of 4.1 percent during the first quarter; the yen shed nearly a third of its value, spurring exports and employment; and share prices on the Tokyo stock market have climbed some 25 percent since the first of the year. Business sentiment and consumer confidence are rising.

Still, Abe's nationalist leanings have managed to bubble to the surface. In April, he touched off a storm of protest from China, South Korea, and Japanese liberals when he stubbornly debated during a Diet session whether Japan had actually "invaded" China or committed "aggression" during the war. He also signaled that he did not fully accept the landmark 1995 apology for Japan's wartime conduct and colonial policies issued by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.

He raised eyebrows further when he led "Banzai" cheers for the emperor and empress during a Sovereignty Day ceremony in April, drawing a look of surprise -- if not outright disapproval -- from the imperial couple.

Abe eventually backed off his statements on historical issues, but not before damaging relations in Beijing and Seoul, and unsettling friends in Washington.

"My impression of Abe is that there is a battle going on between his brain and his heart," says Gerald Curtis, a professor of political science at Columbia University who has studied Japanese politics since the 1960s. "In his brain, he is pragmatic and realistic. But in his heart, he is emotional. He truly believes there is nothing in Japanese history, or that happened during the war, that anyone in Japan should feel bad about."

Abe's conservative roots go deep. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a wartime cabinet minister who was arrested shortly after Japan's surrender on suspicion of war crimes. Kishi was never charged and later became prime minister; he was a strong backer of the U.S.-Japan alliance but failed in his efforts to revise the U.S.-drafted constitution in ways that are strikingly similar to what Abe and the LDP are now backing.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Abe developed a close relationship with his grandfather. Abe wrote in his 2006 book, Toward a Beautiful Country, that Kishi was his political role model and that he may have become "emotionally attached to conservatism" as a reaction to the stigma Kishi and many other former wartime leaders suffered during that period of political ferment.

Indeed, when Abe succeeded the popular Junichiro Koizumi in 2006, many of Abe's key positions were nearly identical to those of Kishi when he was in office. Unfortunately for Abe, those views were still largely out of fashion. Although a pension records scandal and gaffes by cabinet members were largely responsible for Abe's plummeting popularity and subsequent resignation, his fixation with revising the constitution did little to help.

So far, things are different this time. Abe has kept his nationalist leanings largely in check. The disciplined LDP presents a welcome change from the widely perceived incompetence of the Democratic Party of Japan, which held power from 2009 to 2012, a rare break in six decades of near-continuous LDP rule.  And the initial success of "Abenomics" has kept the prime minister's approval ratings in the mid 60 percent range.

During the upper house campaign, Abe and the LDP have tread softly on the issue of constitutional revisions. Rather than discussing substantive changes, they have focused largely on changing the amendment process itself, which they say sets the bar too high. The current process requires a two-thirds majority of both houses and a majority of voters in a national referendum. Abe and the LDP want to change that to a simple majority in both houses, with a national referendum held under new rules that critics says would favor passage.

Given the typically low voter turnout in national elections, it's conceivable LDP-sponsored amendments could pass under the new scheme with the support of as few as 30 percent of Japanese voters. Any change would almost certainly be viewed with suspicion in neighboring South Korea and China, and would fuel fears of rising militarism in Japan.

When voters go to the polls on July 21, Abe and the LDP are expected to gain a solid majority of the 242 of seats in the upper house, either outright or with its coalition partner, the Buddhist-linked New Komeito Party. That would give the LDP effective control of both houses of the Diet, with no requirement to call a new election for at least three years.

It's not clear just how hard Abe and the LDP will push for constitutional revisions. Having failed once, it's unclear whether Abe will risk his second try in office to pursue an uncertain agenda, says Robert Campbell, a professor of Japanese literature at the University of Tokyo and a long-time social commentator on Japanese television and radio.

"Abe knows his legacy and the success of his whole party hinges on being able to make good on his economic policies," he says. "But he's also a very nationalist politician. So I imagine there's going to be a lot of rough water ahead of us."

KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

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