By Grant Anderla
Since 2012, significant political change has occurred in Japan and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has fought to turn Japan in a new geopolitical direction. Concern is growing as China increases pressure in the East China Sea and North Korea builds its nuclear capabilities and ICBMs with greater speed. In light of these threats, Abe seeks to change the legal status of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) by adding a clause to Article 9 of the Constitution recognizing the SDF as a constitutional entity. However, Abe is in an unsteady position, battling with public opinion to reach his 2020 revision goal. To halt sliding public approval for revision and shift it favorably, Abe must carefully explain the need for revision and regain public support for the government. The changes in the Northeast Asian security environment may help Abe explain the need for revision.
Government approval ratings pose the first major challenge for Abe’s planned revision. Without strong approval of the government by the public, support for policies will struggle. Abe’s controversial political decisions — pushing the anti-conspiracy bill through the Diet, restarting nuclear reactors, lifting the ban on arms exports, and reinterpreting the Constitution to allow collective security — have been met by public disapproval. On the other hand, political stability, good foreign relations, economic growth from Abenomics policies, and involvement in free trade agreements like the recent EU trade deal may be drivers for improving public support for the LDP government. The Pew Research Center found that as economic outlook improved in 2013 (up 20 percentage points in one year) seven of ten Japanese approved of Abe. Simultaneously, Pew found that support for constitutional revision rose 9% from 2006 to 2013. Abe’s successful policies have helped create a more positive image of him over the years, but more recently continuing scandals, the fast-tracking of the anti-conspiracy bill, and Cabinet member gaffes have resulted in a sharp decline in public approval in June 2017. Major Japanese media polling data compiled by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation’s “Japan’s Political Pulse” shows that the July 21 approval rating for Abe’s cabinet was at its lowest in the past year at 33% and disapproval was at its highest at 50%. This is the first time that disapproval ratings have been higher than approval ratings since Abe took office in 2012.
Abe recognizes the strong public approval for the SDF and believes that this approval will ensure that revision of Article 9 will pass. He stated in a July 3rd 2017 Mainichi interview that “over 90 percent of the Japanese people say they have confidence in the SDF. For the government, it’s unquestionable that the SDF are constitutional.” However, public opinion does not reflect approval for revision of Article 9, even though confidence in the SDF is high. Polls taken during March and April of 2017 from six major polling groups said between 40 and 50% of the public believe that revision is necessary whereas a group between 30 and 50% of Japanese said revision was not necessary. As shown by Figure 1, the Asahi Shimbun, Yomiuri Shimbun, and NHK polls from March and April of 2017 show that 41, 49, and 43% state that revision is necessary respectively. The same polls also show that 50, 49, and 34% view revision as unnecessary respectively. Likewise, Yomiuri data from 2002 to 2016 shows that opposition to Article 9 revision remains. Abe must bridge the gap between Article 9 approval and SDF confidence with thorough explanation of the proposal. In a 2013 interview, Abe said, “Polls also indicate that once [the public is] told the rationale in more detail, they turn in favor of amendment.” Following this logic, Abe could attain stronger approval for revision.
Figure 1: Is Constitutional Revision Necessary? Data collected from Asahi Shimbun (Question 18), Yomiuri Shimbun (Question 2), and NHK (Chart 1) April 2017 polls prior to the 70th anniversary of the constitution.
This proposal for revision seems to come at a prime moment. With Japanese public trust in the U.S. alliance falling since President Trump took office and fear of North Korea continuing to grow, one may think that public support for revision would grow in parallel. A June 2017 Genron-NPO survey regarding the Japan-U.S. alliance shows that 50.8% of people say trust has decreased, 56.9% say that the Trump administration will bring insecurity to future Japan-U.S. relations, and 44.1% say that American actions may harm the international order. These polls also show that Japanese people feel that Japan should not rely too heavily on the U.S. Regarding North Korea, two Genron-NPO polls from 2014 and 2016 show an increase from 68.6% to 80.6% of Japanese stating that North Korea poses a military threat. Despite these concerns, a Kyodo News poll taken between March and April of 2017 found that only “49 percent of respondents said Article 9 needs to be revised against 47 percent opposing a change,” indicating that people remain divided on the issue despite the perception of a North Korean threat. Figure 2 shows other polling data on approval and disapproval ratings for Article 9 revision, with opinions being divided. The Japanese widely continue to support the pacifist Constitution as an important part of Japan’s foreign policy as pointed out in a 2017 Kyodo News poll.
The chance for Abe to succeed in revision is dissipating. With Abe’s approval falling further in July 2017, he must find a way to recover in polls and sell the idea of a revision to the public. However, recent scandal and gaffes pose major challenges for the revision proposal. But — three things may help grow public support. First, continued economic growth through Abenomics, good foreign relations, and a strategic Cabinet reshuffle may help stabilize Abe’s rating. Second, increasingly credible threats from a nuclear North Korea and decreasing confidence in the U.S. as an ally may push the Japanese people to accept the need for a constitutional SDF. And third, a persuasive explanation of the status and role of a legal SDF may change people’s minds. Perhaps explaining the relationship between revision and “proactive contribution to peace” will contextualize the government position and help in promoting the proposal.
Grant Anderla is a Research Intern with the Japan program at the nonpartisan Stimson Center.