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USJI Voice Vol.32

The 2017 Japanese General Election and Public Constraints on Constitutional Revision

Takeshi Iida
Takeshi Iida
Associate Professor, Doshisha University

The Two-Thirds Majority

The 2017 Japanese general election was a huge victory for the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito. Although the LDP lost a few seats, mainly because of a 10-seat reduction as of this election, it retained a safe majority, and the coalition maintained more than two-thirds of the seats overall.

This result was not a surprise, given the fragmented opposition parties and the seemingly strong economy, at least in terms of high stock prices and employment. However, the significance of this election was that it again garnered far more than a two-thirds majority by the pro-constitutional revision camp, joined by two opposition parties, Party of Hope and Osaka Restoration Association. Together, the pro-constitutional revisionist parties overwhelmed the anti-constitutional revisionist parties, the Constitutional Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party, and the Social Democratic Party, gaining more than 80 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives. This outcome made a constitutional amendment even more of a real possibility, which is a long-term desire of the LDP and PM Shinzo Abe, with the existing pro-constitutional revisionist two-thirds majority in the House of Councillors.

The Discrepancy between Public Opinion and the Election Results

However, recent public opinion polls have found that citizens were not necessarily supportive of constitutional revision. For example, an Asahi Shimbun newspaper poll conducted in March and April 2017 found that 50 percent of the respondents opposed and 41 percent of the respondents favored constitutional revision. Regarding an amendment to Article 9, which prohibits Japan from exercising military force, opposition was 63 percent, whereas support was only 29 percent. One explanation for the apparent gap between public opinion and the election results might be an influence of the electoral system. Japan’s mixed-member majoritarian system, in which the majority of legislators is elected from single-member districts, tends to create over-representation of the relative majority, which leads to a large gap between vote shares and seat shares.

Moreover, voters might consider other issues as more important than constitutional revision when deciding on a party or candidate. A Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper poll conducted just before the October 2017 election found that 41 percent of respondents chose constitutional revision from a list of issues to consider when voting. However, that was much lower than for other issues in the list, such as diplomacy and national security (71 percent), economy and employment (64 percent), tax reform (64 percent), social security for elders (63 percent), energy policy (56 percent), and childcare and education (55 percent).

Although these arguments are quite plausible, I propose another hypothesize that the gap between public opinion and the election results regarding constitutional revision stems from widespread fear of abandonment by the United States (US), which is driving Japanese citizens to tolerate, and even support, the amendment to the Constitution.

Fear of Abandonment and Security Policy Shifts

Since the 2000s, Japan has been faced with a rising China, which overtook Japan in military spending in 2006 and in GDP in 2010. Moreover, North Korea has threatened Japan with the potential for a nuclear strike since the mid-1990s. According to the Cabinet Office poll conducted in 2014, 75.5 percent of Japanese respondents believed that there is a risk of war against Japan in the near future, suggesting the increasing importance to Japan’s security of the Japan-US alliance. However, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll conducted in 2015 found that the American people were reluctant to help Japan because only 33 percent of the American respondents supported the use of US troops, even if China were to initiate a military conflict with Japan over disputed island territory. Some American policy experts even make harsh statements about Japan as a “free-rider” in the Japan-US alliance because of the unfair sharing of the defense burden caused by Article 9 of the Constitution (prohibiting Japan from collective self-defense to help the US if it were attacked).

These circumstances cause the Japanese people to fear abandonment by the US, which has helped the Abe administration to enhance that alliance through an expanded military role. A 2014 controversial cabinet decision somewhat enabled Japan’s ability to exercise a right to collective self-defense through constitutional reinterpretation. The resulting security-related legislation in 2015 permits Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to operate overseas mainly through logistical support to the US behind enemy lines. The polls generally have found that these policy shifts were quite unpopular among Japanese citizens, but the cabinet’s approval ratings have remained relatively high, and have even increased, in the midst of and after these events, respectively.

Typical, but indirect, narratives on fear of abandonment, which assume a weakened deterrence and a necessary enhancement of the alliance with the US, are evident in the debates about the 2014 cabinet decision and the security-related legislation. For example, the cabinet decision’s goal was “to avoid armed conflicts before they materialize and prevent threats from reaching Japan by further elevating the effectiveness of the Japan-US security arrangements and enhancing the deterrence of the Japan-US Alliance for the security of Japan” (Cabinet Office website). Another example of fear of abandonment narratives is in PM Abe’s press conference given on the day before the submission of the security-related bill to the Diet, in which he noted the importance of sending signals to adversaries about the strength of the alliance, stating, “When Japan is in danger, the Japan-U.S. Alliance will function perfectly. Clear demonstration of this to the world will further enhance deterrence, and the chance of Japan being attacked will decrease even further” (Cabinet Secretariat website).

Simultaneously, narratives on fear of entrapment found in the opposition camp concern the possibility of being unwillingly engaged in unnecessary conflict. Koichi Kato, a former LDP politician, warned in the Japan Communist Party’s newspaper that the Self-Defense Force would need to go to the other side of the world if the US asked it to do so. Makoto Ito, a lawyer and owner of a famous bar examination preparatory school, argued in testimony before the Diet on the possible dangers of the security-related legislation that exercising the right to collective self-defense would allow for preemptive attacks on adversaries, which would lead to the killing of enemy soldiers and turn Japan into a target for military attacks.

The fear of being dragged into American wars dominated the fear of abandonment among the Japanese people during the Cold War era, which always frustrated the LDP government’s attempts to enhance Japan’s military role and activate military cooperation with the US. During that period, Japan was an invincible economic and military power in East Asia, and US commitment to the region was never questioned. However, currently, fear of abandonment seems to exert more influence than fear of entrapment on the Japanese people, who apparently feel threatened by Japan’s adversaries and concerned about the Japan-US alliance’s declining capacity to deter attacks.

An Alliance Dilemma Experiment

My ongoing experimental research provides some evidence to support my hypothesis. The study implemented a randomized experiment as part of an Internet survey conducted on March 11 through 15, 2016, which was about two weeks before the enactment of the security-related legislation to enhance the Japan-US alliance. The quota sample was stratified by age, gender, and region, comprised 2,018 respondents aged 20 years or older, and was drawn from a panel of people registered with Rakuten Research Inc.

In the experiment, respondents were randomly assigned to one of three groups that were exposed to: (1) fear of abandonment narratives that oppose the security-related legislation, (2) fear of entrapment narratives that favor the legislation, or (3) no narratives (control group). After the treatment (exposure) was applied, the participants were asked whether they did or did not favor the legislation. Because the random assignment of the respondents into the groups controlled for differences in demographics, political attitudes, and socioeconomic status, any significant differences in their support of the legislation leads to the conclusion that the types of narratives influenced the respondents’ attitudes toward the security-related legislation.

Figure 1 shows the distribution of attitudes toward the security-related legislation of each group. About 31 percent of the control group (left panel) reported favorable or somewhat favorable attitudes toward the legislation, which serves as a baseline. The group treated with fear of abandonment narratives (middle panel) had a statistically significant larger proportion of favorable attitudes (38.6 percent) than the control group, suggesting that exposing people to fears of abandonment increases their support for the legislation. The group that was exposed to fear of entrapment narratives (right panel) was not significantly different from the control group (34.8 percent) regarding the extent to which they found the legislation to be favorable or somewhat favorable, suggesting that exposure to fears of entrapment does not influence the extent of support for the security-related legislation.

Figure 1. Distributions of Attitudes Toward the Security-related Legislation

Implications for the Constitution

The results of the experiment imply that the Japanese people are currently more fearful of abandonment than they are fearful of entrapment with respect to national security. Although constitutional revision is quite unpopular in public opinion polls, it is the fear of abandonment that drives Japanese citizens to tolerate PM Abe’s attempts to amend to the Constitution. This allows for a prediction that the Japanese people will become increasingly open to constitutional revision for national security reasons while they perceive foreign threats. According to an Asahi Shimbun poll conducted in October 2017, a still small, but surprisingly large proportion of people favored the LDP’s constitutional revision plan in its election manifesto, which would add a specific mention of the status of the Self-Defense Forces to Article 9, with 36 percent of respondents favoring and 45 percent of respondents opposing such revision. Importantly, the results found a tendency for relatively weak opposition by the younger cohorts.

In conclusion, previous government attempts to revise the Constitution, particularly Article 9, were strongly constrained by public opinion rooted in the sense of pacifism that the Japanese people embraced throughout the post-World War II era. However, the 2017 general election gave us an opportunity to (re)confirm that such public constraints on constitutional revision declined or no longer existed.


Takeshi Iida
Takeshi Iida is an associate professor of Political Science at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan. He graduated from Doshisha with B.A. in Law and M.A. in American Studies, and earned his Ph.D. in Government from the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests are in the fields of public opinion and voting behavior in Japan and the United States. He has published in academic journals including Social Science Quarterly, Japanese Journal of Political Science, and Asian Journal of Comparative Politics.


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