In 2003, when US president George W. Bush and his advisors were preparing the case for invading Iraq, they announced to the world that they had assembled a “coalition of the willing” who backed military action against Saddam Hussein. The term has become widely reviled, as many of the countries in this supposed “coalition” had no skin in the game (some didn’t even have standing armies), and many were major recipients of US overseas aid. It was a rhetorical flourish, a salad garnish of modesty flimsily covering the dubious status of the invasion under actual international law.
Today, as Japan processes the results from yesterday’s House of Councillors election, there’s a similar phrase that’s doing the rounds; “like-minded parties”. The emerging narrative is that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has assembled a “coalition of the like-minded” – that through stitching together parties and independents in favour of revising Japan’s post-war constitution, he has finally found the two-thirds majorities he needs in both houses of parliament to proceed with that goal.
Abe, in common with many of the more hawkish members of the LDP, doesn’t like the post-war constitution much. He views it, not entirely unfairly, as a document written by Americans and imposed upon Japan. Its restrictions chafe at him, especially in terms of Japan’s ability to assert itself internationally, which is strictly limited by the pacifist Article 9. None of this is secret or hidden. The agenda of Abe and the LDP for constitutional reform is openly discussed. The party’s website even hosts a draft of the reformed constitution it would like to put in place.
Who else is in favour of constitutional revision? According to news agencies running with the “coalition of the like-minded” narrative, the parties in favour are the LDP, their coalition partners Komeito, Initiatives from Osaka (the latest incarnation of the burgeoning but chaotic Kansai-based political movement) and The Party for Japanese Kokoro (a mid-implosion right-wing fringe group founded by the now-retired Shintaro Ishihara). Added to a small number of LDP-leaning independents, this gives a two-thirds majority in both houses. This means that constitutional revision is supposedly on the table. Abe himself has already called for a debate on revision to commence.
The problem with this narrative is that it’s over-simplified to the point of dishonesty. Just as the Iraq War’s “coalition of the willing” included several countries whose “willingness” didn’t extend to any actual participation in conflict, Abe’s “coalition of the like-minded” includes some major groups whose thinking on constitutional revision is markedly different from his own. Primary among those is Komeito, whose inclusion in these lists of “pro-revision” parties is deeply questionable.
Komeito, the political offshoot of lay Buddhist organisation Soka Gakkai, is a socially conservative party whose domestic policies are a relatively comfortable fit for the LDP. The party’s views on international policy and military policy, however, depart radically from the LDP’s. Komeito inherits from Soka Gakkai a strong central pillar of pacifism. While it has been willing to bend its principles to some degree to maintain its mutually beneficial relationship with the LDP, Komeito’s leaders are conscious that its existence depends on the votes of Soka members. Straying too far from the organisation’s philosophy, to the extent of breaking its umbilical link with Soka, would result in the loss of the religious support base that is the party’s primary asset.
Komeito is, officially, in favour of constitutional revision – but there is an enormous gulf between the broad concept of “constitutional revision” and the rather narrower concept of “the constitutional revision which Shinzo Abe wants”. At a speech in Iwakura city in Aichi prefecture earlier this month, Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi made perfectly clear, not for the first time, that his party has “fundamentally different thinking” to the LDP on areas of constitutional revision (「公明と自民で基本的に憲法改正に対する考え方が違っているところがある」). Yamaguchi also pointed out that the situation is more complex than “pro-revision” and “anti-revision”; Komeito is “pro-revision” but has its own agenda about what it would like to revise, while the Democratic Party, officially “anti-revision”, actually has members who strongly favour specific constitutional revisions. (Asahi Shimbun, 2016-07-05, 4総合、p.4)
“Constitutional revision”, in itself, is not necessarily a right-wing, conservative or militaristic objective. The Japanese constitution is a problematic document from many standpoints, and contains many contradictions. The question is what you’d like to revise. Plenty of progressives would like to revise Article 24, which defines marriage as between “both sexes” and seemingly prevents equal marriage from being adopted. Some legal scholars approve of changing Article 41 – which was intended to assert the primacy of the Diet over the Emperor, but has in practice been used to assert its primacy over the Supreme Court. Yet others suggest adding or amending articles to create rights and obligations related to environmental protection.
Including supporters of those changes -such as Komeito, which has hinted at approving of an environmental protection amendment – in the “coalition of the like-minded” is stretching the definition of “like-minded” past breaking point. The problem is that constitutional amendment, as a concept, is wielded by the media as a blunt object. NHK conducted an exit poll yesterday which asked whether voters thought that constitutional revision was necessary, concluding that 33% said “necessary”, 32% disagreed and 35% didn’t know – a major swing against “necessary” compared with the same exit poll in 2013’s election. The devil is in the lack of detail; NHK did not ask voters which part of the constitution they thought needed to be changed. Shorn of detail, the question is ridiculous. Walk into the street in any country with a clipboard and ask the question, “should we change the law”, declining to clarify which law you mean or how it would be changed, and you’ll collect lots of data to which precisely no meaning can be assigned.
The existence of this hypothetical “coalition of the like-minded”, then, is a fantasy. Until its members can agree on what to change and how, there is no coalition, and there are no “like minds”. Abe’s announcement that he wishes to start a discussion to that end is only the beginning of a long, difficult negotiation process whose outcome is far from certain – and Article 9, at least, is probably off the table entirely. Abe knows that Komeito remains a stumbling block to his constitutional ambitions. In TV interviews last night he alluded to the same point Yamaguchi made last week – that there are Democratic Party members in favour of reform. This implies that he knows he may have to lean on unlikely support in order to stitch together a two-thirds majority on any revision, and even then, it’s not going to be the sweeping revision he actually wants.
And all of that, of course, is just to pass the legislation required to hold a referendum – which will require the assent of the majority of the country’s voters to pass, and whose failure would likely cost Abe his political career. This election outcome is little more than a small, shuffling step on a long, steep road towards constitutional revision – and for all the talk of “like-minded parties”, it’s a road that Abe and his right-wing allies are still largely walking alone.