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Scholar plumbs postwar polls to challenge Japanese Constitution ‘myths’

  • January 7, 2018
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press



Shiro Sakaiya is an associate professor of political science at Tokyo Metropolitan University. His study has recently drawn keen attention from scholars and media people, as the constitutional revision advocated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is likely to dominate the Japanese political scene throughout 2018.


Sakaiya, who published a book in October, has arguably shattered several “myths” about Japanese politics that have been widely accepted for years.


Among them is the belief that the Japanese people, who suffered the devastation of World War II, enthusiastically embraced the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution when its draft was publicized in March 1946.


“People’s memories can be revised as generations change,” Sakaiya said during a recent interview with The Japan Times.


“In short, a key message of my book is that people haven’t seen the Constitution as something so ‘sacred’ that it should not be touched in the postwar years,” said Sakaiya, who was invited to be a speaker at the Japan National Press Club on Dec. 19.


He argued that after the war, the influence of “liberal” intellectuals defending the pacifist Constitution was so strong that it has been widely believed that people sided with their view for decades.


But polling data suggested that was not always the case, Sakaiya said.


He pointed out that few nationwide opinion polls were conducted in the late 1940s. The only available data on war-renouncing Article 9 were from a poll by the daily Mainichi Shimbun in May 1946 that found 70 percent of respondents said a war-renouncing article was “necessary” and 28 percent said it was “unnecessary.”


Most scholars who argued that the Japanese people immediately accepted the war-renouncing Constitution based their claims on that one poll.


But Sakaiya says the sampling method used for the poll was seriously flawed. At that time, the Mainichi polled only 2,000 “intellectuals,” with college graduates accounting for 39 percent, civil servants 24 percent, women 13 percent and farmers 6 percent.


“Those ratios were far from the actual demographic composition at that time, and it is extremely difficult to surmise the general consensus of the people,” Sakaiya wrote in his book “Kenpo to Yoron” (“Constitution and Public Opinion”).


Many nonintellectuals in rural areas were believed to be particularly critical of the war-renouncing Constitution, but their voices were not proportionately reflected in the Mainichi poll, he said.


“So at best, what people thought about the war-renouncing article at that time is unknown now. Rather, the results of polls in the 1950s suggest more people were opposed to the article,” Sakaiya said.


In the 1950s, political debate heated up over whether to draw up a whole new Constitution after the Allied Occupation ended in 1952.


A poll by the Mainichi Shimbun in March 1952 found 43 percent supported revising the charter to allow Japan to possess its own military and 27 percent opposed it.


A poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun in April the same year found 48 percent supported the option of revising Article 9 and 39 percent opposed it.


Few people remember the results of those polls in the 1950s. Probably the collective memory of those results was overshadowed by the accounts of mainstream “liberal” intellectuals who tried to defend the pacifist Constitution, Sakaiya said.


His book is unique in that it is probably the only academic study to cover all of the more than 1,200 postwar opinion polls by major organizations that addressed the issue of constitutional revision.


Sakaiya noted that people’s responses could vary greatly even if small changes were made to the wording of the poll questions.


One can find vastly differing results from several opinion polls that asked similar questions, he said, adding that any favored conclusion could be drawn from such data.


“So I decided not to choose. Instead, I covered all of the opinion polls on the Constitution in the postwar years,” he said.


He said that polling results show that since around 2006 — when Shinzo Abe won his first prime ministership — public opposition to revising the Constitution has grown significantly.


Many people might believe nationalistic sentiment has grown recently as new generations mature, helping Abe’s ruling party grab a rare two-thirds supermajority in the Diet.


But polling data suggest that this assumption, at least, is not true, he says. Sakaiya claims voters threw their support behind Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, rather than the fractured opposition, because the economic situation was good, particularly the jobless rate and stock prices.


In fact, according to a joint survey by the Asahi Shimbun and the University of Tokyo, economic and welfare issues usually prevailed when voters were asked which issues they prioritized in recent elections.


Constitutional revision has been a marginal issue, he said.


“It’s obvious that the LDP has won elections because of Abenomics, not because of the people’s support for Abe’s drive to revise the Constitution,” he said.


Asked whether Abe will succeed in his attempt to revise Article 9, Sakaiya said it is too early to make a prediction because voters may have a sensitive reaction to the wording of any national referendum, as was often the case in the past opinion polls.


Abe’s LDP has not hammered out the details of its revision proposals, let alone the specific wording for a national referendum.


For example, if the proposed revision changes the name of the Self-Defense Forces to include the Japanese term gun, which traditionally refers to a military force, it would significantly increase opposition even if there is no change to the substance of SDF activities.


Similarly, any change to the Article 9 phrase “renunciation of war” would also spark a strong reaction, Sakaiya said.


Still, the results of past polls generally suggest the people consistently agree that the SDF should be given legitimate legal status in the Constitution.


That is probably a key reason why Abe has given up on the idea of drastically revising Article 9 and instead proposed that sentences be added only to formalize the status of the SDF, Sakaiya said.


“That’s the right strategy if his purpose is just to revise the Constitution itself,” he said.


In the meantime, if the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), now the largest opposition force in the Diet, strongly opposes Abe’s proposal, its argument will be greatly played up by the media.


Thus the CDP’s stance will be another critical factor that could sway the public’s decision in a national referendum on constitutional revision, Sakaiya said.


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