TOKYO – A projected landslide victory for Japan's ruling party in parliamentary elections Sunday could give Prime Minister Shinzo Abe political breathing space to push forward with his long-held nationalist agenda.
While Abe has put the economy at the center of the campaign, the platform of his Liberal Democratic Party also promises to revise Japan's constitution and actively protest what it calls "wrongful accusations" about the country's wartime past. Media polls pointing to a larger-than-expected victory have raised right-wing hopes that Abe could hold onto power for four more years, giving him time to try to tackle their more controversial goals.
"I must emphasize that a stable majority, as the media projects, makes constitutional revision a realistic option," Satoru Mizushima, a leader of a nationalist group told viewers of a right-wing satellite and Internet TV channel. "Japan has been stuck with a U.S.-imposed constitution. In order to change the postwar regime, we must change the constitution. The upcoming election is a chance."
How far Abe can get is another question. Constitutional change is a divisive issue in Japan, and a focus on nationalist issues is one reason cited for Abe's downfall in a short-lived earlier stint as prime minister in 2006-07. Economic issues top voter concerns in polls, and an emphasis on his "Abenomics" policies has helped keep his popularity relatively high since he regained power in December two years ago.
The constitution was drafted by American forces that occupied Japan after its defeat in World War II, and has been interpreted to allow a military only for defensive purposes. What constitutes defensive purposes has been expanded over the years, most recently in July by a Cabinet reinterpretation of the constitution that allows the military to defend an ally, such as the U.S., in limited conditions under a concept known as "collective self-defense."
While some Japanese are drawn to Abe's attempts to project a stronger Japan to counter China's rise, many embrace the constitution's anti-war stance and are wary of any attempts to change that. Any nationalist-leaning initiatives would raise tensions with China and further sour ties with South Korea.
So Abe needs to tread carefully. At best, he may be able to take some baby steps forward, while actual revision depends on another like-minded politician reaching the premiership in a more distant future.
"We have finally built a bridge that we can cross toward constitutional revision," he said in response to a question on the topic at an election debate. But noting that amendment requires approval in a national referendum, he added, "unfortunately I don't think there is a growing desire for constitutional change among the public."
The revisions proposed by the Liberal Democratic Party in its latest draft constitution in 2012 say that while Japan continues to renounce its right to use military force to resolve disputes, its military should be freer to engage in actions that maintain international peace and order. They would also make changes to promote patriarchal values and return the emperor to head of state, and allow freedoms such as speech and expression to be restricted if harmful to public interest.
A more immediate issue will be Abe's position on World War II history, whether he will return to a shrine that honors convicted Japanese war criminals among the war dead, and what statement he will make on the 70th anniversary of the end of that war next August.
His visit to Yasukuni shrine a year ago, on the first anniversary of taking office, angered China and South Korea, and the U.S. took the somewhat unusual step of expressing official disappointment.
Statements by Abe and by conservatives he has appointed to the board of Japan's national broadcaster have raised doubts about his commitment to an official apology Japan made on the 50th anniversary of the war's end, and to a 1993 apology to Korean and other women who worked in military-run brothels during the war, many against their will.
James Schoff, a Japan expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, worries that a huge victory for Abe's party could embolden him to pursue his nationalist goals, rather than focus on bolstering the economy and U.S.-Japan security ties.
"If Abe wins too big, he could actually get distracted, I think, by some other constitutional reforms and other bigger historical things that he wants to do," said Schoff, a former adviser on East Asia policy at the U.S. Defense Department. "If he spends his political capital on those issues instead of on these other things that the United States is prioritizing, maybe we wouldn't be as excited about that."
Japan's major media, based on extensive voter polls, project that the LDP could win more than 300 of the 475 seats in the lower house of parliament, possibly even the 317 that would give it a two-thirds majority.
Revising the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament before putting to a national referendum. "If they pass that line, everything starts moving toward the right direction," said Tadae Takubo, an international politics professor and author of a new book titled "Don't Miss This Last Chance for Constitutional Revision."
If Japan fails to do so, the conservative academic said, it "would sink between the two powers, U.S. and China, and become a small, hopeless nation."