On 10 July, Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition won an impressive victory in Japan’s half-upper house election. Having campaigned on the need to stay the Abenomics course, Abe stated in his victory speech that he would convene commissions on the constitution in both houses of parliament. Welcome to the surreal world of Japanese electoral politics.

The dissonance between reality and policy will dictate the parliamentary agenda until the end of Abe’s term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in September 2018. According to Abe, the commissions will commence deliberations on revising the 1947 constitution on the basis of the LDP’s own 2012 draft, as if this document had standing in the legislature (it doesn’t), and as if this was widely understood in the nation at large (it isn’t). 

As Abe and his hard right conservative backers know all too well, majority public opinion remains hostile to the notion of constitutional revision; hence why Abe has not made it an electoral issue during any of his past four campaigns, including this latest one.

For the general public, the constitution is known as the ‘peace constitution’, and its signature clause Article 9 has a talismanic status in the postwar nation. The constitution has not been revised in law since its promulgation in 1947, in part because the majority of Japanese people regard pacifism and democracy as essential, interdependent ethics for their nation after WWII. When the words ‘constitutional revision’ are uttered, most people equate this (mistakenly) with the intention to weaken the pacifist clause.

The matter of constitutional revision was understandably the main focus for Japan’s news media in their election coverage. Theoretically, a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament can facilitate revision of the constitution, provided this is subsequently endorsed by a simple majority in a national referendum. 

On the campaign trail, Abe did not respond to multiple queries on constitutional revision from the news media, despite their evident preoccupation with this issue above all others. The media and the prime minister were in different worlds, parallel but not intersecting until the show was over.

Japan’s media assisted the LDP in channelling public perception in another way too. The opposition forces made history in this election by putting forward a united ticket, which saw them combine to support one candidate in each of the 32 single seat electorates. 

The media overwhelmingly portrayed this effort by the four opposition entities as one inspired by a single shared goal: preventing the ruling coalition from gaining the crucial two-thirds majority in the upper house, which together with the coalition’s two-thirds majority in the lower house would theoretically enable them to revise the constitution. The fact that this united platform also entailed policies on social welfare, work and education was barely mentioned by the media.

Abe’s political ambition, publicly stated over many years, has been to revise a document that he considers to be underpinned with the disgrace and subordinate status of a defeated, occupied country. For Abe, it is not a matter of whether the constitution will be revised, but rather which sections need to be revised. 

And we now know what the deadline is: the ruling coalition will face the electorate again in a lower house poll by December 2018. The unprecedented two-thirds majority that now theoretically exists in both chambers may not exist after that election. This is a once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity for Abe, and we can expect to see rapid movement on this question for the remainder of his term.

This opens a massive fissure between government policy and the expectations of the electorate. It also potentially makes the constitution a subject of political horse-trading, as the entities that deliver this theoretical two-thirds majority in the upper house all want their own revisions inserted into the new document. The ruling coalition needs the support of the Osaka Ishin no Kai and the Nihon Kokoro o Taisetsu ni Suru Kai, not to mention the pacifist Komeito, to get the majority they need in that chamber.

None of this is guaranteed. The ruling coalition member Komeito remains committed to pacifism, although some analysts suggest that the party has compromised its position in order to remain in power. The Osaka Ishin no Kai is more interested in greater autonomy for regional governments, and they are likely to demand this as an inclusion in the new constitution as their price for supporting amendments to Article 9. The Nihon no Kokoro o Taisetsu ni Suru Kai will similarly want their partisan interests reflected.

The fundamental law of the land seems poised to become the object of unseemly lobbying. The question is how far is Abe’s LDP willing to go to secure his lifetime political ambition? Abe and his coalition government will devote the full spectrum of bureaucratic muscle to this end, and they will masterfully manipulate parliamentary business in the process.

Whether this entire exercise occurs in the bubble of the Abe administration’s augmented reality or in a more transparent dialogue with the nation is a matter that will deeply impact on the relationship between civil society and government in Japan, now and into the future.

Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency