Japan had barely begun processing the shock of the former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s assassination by a gunman on July 8 before attention turned to whether his quest to remilitarize Japan, including the revision of its pacifist Constitution, would survive him.
Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Mr. Abe was a towering presence at home and an influential statesman abroad. He advocated a more globally engaged Japan, was a driving force in the Quad alliance between the United States, Australia, India and Japan and is credited by some with initiating the very idea of the wider Indo-Pacific region.
He also envisioned a more militarily robust Japan, centered on his unfulfilled dream of revising its postwar Constitution, which prohibits his country from maintaining an offensive armed forces capability. His supporters have vowed to make these dreams — driven largely by fear of a more powerful China — a reality.
Yet it’s time for Japan to bid farewell not only to Mr. Abe but also to his nationalist rearmament agenda. Japan’s political and economic resources should be focused not on revising the Constitution and increasing defense spending but on maintaining peace through diplomacy and shoring up an economy left shaky by years of Mr. Abe’s trickle-down policies.
Critically, at a time when the United States is focused on confronting China, a humbler, more pacifist Japan could have an important role to play by re-engaging with Beijing to help decrease tensions between China and the United States.
Mr. Abe was shot while campaigning on behalf of his Liberal Democratic Party for parliamentary elections that were to be held just two days later. He leaves behind a personal legacy far more controversial and checkered than is warranted by the simplistic, fawning tributes that followed his demise.
Detractors at home considered Mr. Abe an arrogant bully who silenced critics. Constitutional, parliamentary and media checks and balances were undermined during his tenure, and he notoriously made false statements to Parliament 118 times over a political scandal.
He unnecessarily offended neighbors like South Korea and China — where anger still seethes over Japan’s brutal wartime aggression — with his historical revisionism. His December 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japanese war dead, including war criminals from the World War II era, even invited a rare rebuke from the United States. He also backed school textbooks that gloss over Japan’s World War II barbarity, including the forcing of thousands of women around Asia to serve as sex slaves for Japanese troops.
But few aspects of Mr. Abe’s career threatened to alter Japan’s national character and role in the region as much as his crusade against Article 9, which renounces war as a means of solving international disputes and limits Japan’s military to a self-defense role. Mr. Abe unnerved millions of Japanese who see no reason to depart from a commitment to peace that kept Japan out of any direct involvement in war since 1945, allowing it to focus on becoming an economic power.
Mr. Abe failed to change the article despite two stints in power, from 2006 to ’07 and from 2012 to ’20. He settled instead for a reinterpretation that allows Japan to help close allies militarily under certain conditions but has been criticized as unconstitutional.
Japan looks no closer to revising Article 9 today, especially with the L.D.P.’s right wing now deprived of its uncontested standard-bearer. A commitment to peace runs deep in a country that was taken to war by a military government, causing huge suffering in Asia and ending in Japan’s total defeat and the distinction of being the only country attacked with nuclear weapons.
An opinion survey in late June by the broadcaster NHK found that only 5 percent of respondents named revising the Constitution as their top electoral priority, while 43 percent identified the economy. Public opinion on revising Article 9 is split, with 50 percent in favor and 48 percent against, according to a poll in May, and 70 percent said momentum for a revision was not increasing.
The long-dominant L.D.P. and its allies secured the two-thirds majority in Parliament’s upper house required to initiate a national referendum on amending the Constitution. But that was widely expected even before Mr. Abe’s murder, and the ruling coalition’s gains stemmed in part from divisions within the opposition rather than a pro-Abe groundswell. Even Mr. Abe never seriously pushed for a referendum because of the political risks, despite enjoying a two-thirds majority for some of his years in power.
Attention now turns to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, but it’s a measure of just how smothering Mr. Abe’s presence was — he forbade open dissent among party leaders — that the Japanese don’t really know what to expect from Mr. Kishida, who represents L.D.P. moderates who have opposed constitutional revision. After the election, Mr. Kishida promised greater defense spending and pledged renewed attention on Article 9 but gave no hint that this was more than a courteous nod to the departed Mr. Abe.
But there is no doubt that Mr. Kishida’s hand is strengthened. Mr. Abe left no clear right-wing successor, and his death throws the faction into disarray, allowing Mr. Kishida an opportunity to assert more control over the national agenda.
This should include building support for a departure from Abenomics, policies launched during Mr. Abe’s second spell in power that were intended to shake off two decades of economic stagnation through fiscal and monetary stimulus, ramped-up government spending and deregulatory reforms. Corporate profits rose, but public debt accumulated, bold structural reforms were never seriously pursued, and wages remained stagnant. Then the pandemic hit. The yen is weakening, and inflation is on the rise — and so are coronavirus infections.
Mr. Kishida has called for prioritizing wage increases and narrowing the rich-poor gap. This will require more social security funding, which will inevitably clash with the doubling of defense spending in the next five years that Mr. Abe sought. With the economy a greater concern to the public than security issues, Mr. Kishida can ill afford to waste precious political capital on revising Article 9.
On dealing with China, Mr. Kishida revealed little of his own diplomatic vision when he served as a foreign minister of Mr. Abe’s, but his faction has traditionally engaged with China, and he may now be better positioned to pursue a policy more focused on dialogue with Beijing.
Mr. Abe’s tragic demise offers his successors a chance to emerge from his shadow and turn the page on his policies.
Stripping away the safeguards of Article 9 and remilitarizing Japan would only further inflame tensions with China and risk an arms race with potentially devastating consequences for Japan and the region. On the contrary, a reaffirmed commitment to peace would allow domestic resources to be focused on the economy and open the door for better relations with Japan’s neighbors founded on peace through diplomacy.
It’s time to beat Mr. Abe’s swords into plowshares.
Koichi Nakano (@knakano1970) is a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo who researches the rightward shift in Japanese politics that has occurred in recent decades.
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