The outcome of the general election on Sunday is likely to set the stage for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party to push ahead toward amending the pacifist Constitution, with the LDP and other pro-amendment forces expected to retain sufficient majorities in both the lower and upper houses.
But questions continue to be raised about Abe's desire to revise the war-renouncing Article 9 to validate the existence of the Self-Defense Forces, leaving uncertainties over how his proposal will take shape following the election.
Abe's abrupt decision last month to call an election has brought some advantages to the LDP in pushing for talks to alter the Constitution. The Democratic Party, formerly the main opposition force that was cautious about amendments initiated by Abe, split up, with many joining the new Party of Hope that is clearly pro-amendment.
The LDP also does not have to worry about the process being disrupted by major national elections for the time being, with the next one only expected in the summer of 2019 when half of the seats in the House of Councillors will be contested.
Still, it remains a challenging task to rewrite Article 9 as it is an issue that divides the public. Revising the Constitution not only requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Diet but also a majority in a national referendum.
Article 9 renounces war in the first paragraph, and abjures the right to maintain military forces and other "war potential" in the second paragraph. The government has long taken the position that the SDF are constitutional, interpreting the article as not prohibiting Japan from possessing the "minimum necessary" capability to defend itself.
Abe's proposal centers on leaving the two existing paragraphs intact and "adding" another paragraph about the SDF, which he says is intended to bring an end to arguments made by some scholars and others that the SDF are "unconstitutional."
While playing down concerns that the change could lead to loosening the constraints the SDF currently face in their activities, Abe has said there is a need to address the "sad" situation of SDF members, whom he describes as "working around the clock to defend" the country from North Korean threats and yet are asked by their children, "Daddy, are the SDF unconstitutional?"
But even parties inside the pro-amendment camp seem to be skeptical about whether Abe's proposal is worth pursuing.
"Media polls show more than half of the public do not support the idea of mentioning the SDF in the Constitution, including respondents who are not sure whether they are for or against the idea," Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the Komeito party, which is known for its dovish stance on security issues, said earlier in the month.
The party also said in its election manifesto that many Japanese people already "support the current activities of the SDF and do not regard their existence as unconstitutional."
The Party of Hope led by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, meanwhile, said in its election platform that it will promote discussions to revise the supreme law, including Article 9. But it also indicated that it would not agree with the idea of mentioning the SDF unless there is "public consent" for it.
Keigo Komamura, a law professor at Keio University, feels that Abe's proposal has lacked substance so far because he seems to be skirting around fundamental questions, such as how the SDF should be defined in the Constitution, and whether Japan should continue treating them as something other than a "military" even though, in reality, it has grown to become a well-equipped organization with around 250,000 personnel.
Abe may be dodging such politically sensitive questions so as not to ruffle too many feathers, but such behavior may fuel public distrust that Abe is simply focusing on leaving a legacy as the prime minister who achieved the first-ever amendment of the Constitution, Komamura said.
Conservatives view Article 9 as a symbolic part of the humiliatingly "imposed" Constitution by the U.S.-led occupation after World War II. Even if the change is a mere tweak, any revision would be hailed by many members of the LDP, which has argued that Japan should have its "own" Constitution to make it "a truly sovereign state."
But Komamura said, "Changing the Constitution is a process that requires full deliberation and should be pursued when there is a real need to change something fundamental for the country...If you avoid discussing core issues and simply push through an amendment on the back of a majority, it will leave a major stain on our history."
Other academics warn that Abe's proposal is expected to have far more implications than "just adding an SDF line" in the supreme law.
Miho Aoi, a law professor at Gakushuin University, said Abe's proposal could be the start of a series of revisions toward establishing the "military status" of the SDF in law.
"It will never end just by writing the word SDF. Being referred to in the supreme law will make the SDF a 'special organization' that should be given the power to match that specialty," Aoi said, citing as an example the need to add provisions regarding martial law, which the current Constitution does not have.
Some political experts were doubtful that Abe will go so far as achieving any amendment of the Constitution, considering the unpopularity of several of his policies during his nearly five-year term in office.
Michael Cucek, an adjunct professor at Temple University Japan Campus, said the constitutional amendment issue is "not the number of seats" in the Diet but whether Abe can "convince 51 percent of the voters or 50 percent of the voters plus one to vote in any referendum for his idea."
"I do not believe he can do that," Cucek said at a recent press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo, adding that none of Abe's amendment proposals seems to be guaranteed to get 60 percent of public support.
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