By: Todd Crowell

Shinzo Abe says he will make changing Japan’s pacifist constitution the keynote of his campaign for a third term as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and thus prime minister.

Abe’s current term expires in September and a successful campaign would extend it by another three years, enabling him to remain as premier through most of 2021.That would make him Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.

Only One Challenger

So far, only one LDP bigwig, Shigeru Ishida, has stepped forward to challenge the prime minister.  Several other prospects such as former foreign minister Fumio Kishida have declined to run.

Since Abe returned to office (he served as premier for about a year previously (2006-2007), Abe has led his party to three smashing general election victories for the house of representatives, or the lower house of Japan’s bicameral parliament.

That gives him a rare opportunity to modify the country’s charter for the first time in the 70 years since the American occupiers wrote it and demanded that the parliament ratify it. Abe has the necessary two-thirds majorities in both houses to put any change to the people for ratification.

That is to say he has the votes on paper to accomplish the task. Individual members have differing opinions on exactly what changes should be made, especially concerning the sensitive Article 9, which prohibit Japan from having a military.

Six Decades of Frustration

Ever since the LDP was founded in 1955, it has favored amending the document but has never before had the super majorities necessary to do it. In 2012 it published a position paper setting forth the party’s views on what needed to be change and what should be retained.

The LDP’s proposed amendments would put greater emphasis on duties and less on rights if enacted in total, which is not likely. Some favor making some innocuous changes to get the public used to amending the constitution, which has never been altered.

Despite the language in Article 9, Japan actually maintains a large and robust military establishment known euphemistically as the Self Defense Forces. Its constitutionality is based on one 1959 Supreme Court ruling that Japan had a higher right, like every other country, to defend itself.

Abe would like to introduce some language into the charter that specifically legalizes the Japanese military so it would never be declared unconstitutional. “We cannot continue our debate forever,” Abe said recently addressing voters in his home constituency.

No Clash of Ideas

The upcoming campaign will not likely be any kind of clash of ideas, as Ishiba is even more of a hawk than Abe. He has served as Minister of Defense and at one time said he favored allowing Americans to base nuclear weapons on their Japanese bases.

Ishiba ran against Abe in the 2012 party election. Abe nonetheless appointed him to his first cabinet post responsible for economic revitalization. However, he has declined to serve in subsequent cabinets to make himself free to challenge Abe.

The nomination in Japan is somewhat akin to a presidential primary in the US. The voters are made up of all LDP members of parliament (405 with both houses) plus members of the LDP party chapters in the 47 prefectures also have a vote.

Ishiba has been assiduously cultivating the hustings, He has strength in the countryside and some members of parliament especially members of the upper house, but he is far behind the prime minister in the crucial parliamentary bloc.

Schools for Scandal

So far Ishiba has not brought up two “school” scandals that have dogged Abe for the past year, except to refer obliquely to being “honest and fair” and eager to win the trust of the people.

Abe seems to have recovered from the scandals. given rising public approval ratings for his cabinet, now about 40 percent. The affairs are the Moritomo Gakuen scandal, where Abe is accused of orchestrating a sweet heartland deal on behalf of an extremely right wing elementary school.

The other is the Kake Gakuen, in which Abe is accused of helping an old friend open a new veterinary school, which the ministry of health says is unneeded. Abe and his wife have denied accusations in both cases.

In Japan, as elsewhere, all politics is local, and so besides the constitution change plus concerns over North Korea, there is plenty of talk and promises about new bullet train lines and other large public works projects that the local LDP committees like to talk up among constituencies.

Health Problems

Abe has of this writing not officially declared his candidacy, but will do so probably near the end of August. It is possible that final decision may be depend on his health. It largely is forgotten that Abe had to resign his first stint as premier for health reasons.

Abe suffers from colitis, inflammation of the inner lining of the colon, but new medicines and treatment have allowed him to serve again. He certainly has maintained a vigorous pace in the five years since he returned to power. In those years he has visited more than 60 countries as premier often more than once.