“Don’t expect Shinzo Abe to try to change the constitution before the Olympic Games,” a senior Japanese government official told me privately this week. He explained that the Prime Minister’s long-cherished plan of removing the clause in the constitution which commits Japan to a form of pacifism would be put on hold until after the 2020 games.
Mr Abe originally set 2020 as the deadline for constitutional change.
My contact explained that the Prime Minister is treading cautiously because of domestic politics, international diplomacy and economics.
“I want to make the Olympics a trigger for sweeping away fifteen years of deflation and economic decline.” Shinzo Abe
Domestically, Mr Abe requires the support of a two thirds majority in both the upper and lower houses of the parliament before he can seek its approval for constitutional change. At the moment, the numbers are on his side but he needs continued backing from both houses.
Although the opposition parties are weak, the constitution is an issue upon which they hope to draw public support. Resistance to changing the so-called pascificist clause, known as Clause Nine, remains strong, if the many recent surveys on the topic are to be believed. A final change would need approval through a referendum.
That means that if the Prime Minister wants to press for reform the constitution, he will need to debate the policy in the glare of the media. According to my friend in the government, this is not something Mr Abe wishes to do as he tries to rally the country around the Olympic flag.
Furthermore, China and South Korea are critical of Mr Abe’s plan to change the constitution and to allow Japan’s armed forces to fight abroad. Both nations have bitter memories of being occupied by Japanese soldiers in the first half of the 20th Century.
The Olympics offers an opportunity for Japan to build friendly relations with its neighbours through sport. Reigniting the debate about the region’s history of conflict would send the wrong diplomatic signal entirely, according to my source.
Another issue is Mr Abe’s plan to revive the economy, known as Abenomics. The economy is improving partly because of all the spending associated with run-up to the Olympics. The games also offer Prime Minister Abe an opportunity to broadcast to the world his key political slogan “Japan is back.”
When he learned that Tokyo had won the honour of hosting the games, Mr Abe said: “I want to make the Olympics a trigger for sweeping away fifteen years of deflation and economic decline.”
The enormous publicity value of a big sporting tournament was made clear by the success of the World Figure Skating championships in Nagoya last week.
It attracted star athletes from China, South Korea, Russia and many other countries to compete alongside Japanese stars. Japan gains great prestige when it hosts international sporting events which are shown throughout Asia on television.