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Abe Plan for More Forceful Military Fades With His Popularity
By John Brinsley
Feb. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Shinzo Abe's aim of revising Japan's pacifist constitution to allow the nation to assert itself militarily for the first time in more than 60 years may be petering out, a casualty of the prime minister's falling popularity.
``He's set himself up for failure,'' said Gerald Curtis, author of ``The Japanese Way of Politics'' and a professor of political science at Columbia University in New York. ``There's no enthusiasm for constitutional revision from society as a whole. For it to happen he has to be pretty popular, and he's not.''
Less than five months after taking office, Abe's popularity is plummeting amid scandals and doubts over his ability to address problems including welfare costs and a rising disparity in incomes. Abe, 52, may face pressure to step down if his Liberal Democratic Party does poorly in July elections for parliament's upper house.
A Kyodo News survey published Feb. 5 found that only 40.3 percent of Japanese approve of his performance, while 44.1 disapprove; his ratings have plummeted 25 points since he took office.
``Abe's lack of popularity in opinion polls is doing serious damage to his credibility,'' said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. ``For him to make constitutional reform the centerpiece of July's elections is a huge risk.''
Japan's constitution, written by U.S. occupation forces after its defeat in 1945, renounces war as a sovereign right and forbids military forces. Japan can't exercise the right of collective self-defense -- to defend an ally that is attacked -- although courts have ruled that it can maintain troops for self- defense purposes.
Most Japanese prime ministers since World War II have concentrated on economic issues or, in the case of Abe's immediate predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, on revitalizing the LDP. Abe argues that with its pacifist approach, the constitution has made Japan ``incapable of adapting to the great changes taking place in the 21st century,'' as he told parliament on Jan. 26.
He pledged to enact legislation this year calling for a national referendum on how to revise the document .
While Abe's effort has drawn support from some -- former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, an advocate of constitutional revision, said in an interview that Abe's Jan. 4 speech outlining his proposed changes was ``great'' -- it hasn't resonated with the public.
Opinion polls show that Japanese are ambivalent to constitutional change, and consider other issues more important, such as rising social welfare costs due to Japan's aging population.
Abe's popularity has been diminished by a series of scandals and miscues by his ministers. In December, his administrative reform minister resigned after his supporters falsified financial records, and the head of the government's tax panel quit over the improper use of a subsidized apartment.
Last month, Abe's health minister, Hakuo Yanagisawa, referred to Japanese females as ``baby-making machines,'' enraging women and prompting calls from the opposition for the minister's resignation. Abe has yet to ask Yanagisawa to quit, partly because he's already lost so many members of his cabinet, said Jeff Kingston, a professor of political science at Temple University in Tokyo. ``It certainly wouldn't look good for Abe to have to keep on replacing his ministers,'' Kingston said.
Changing Japan's constitution for the first time would require two-thirds approval from both chambers of parliament followed by a national referendum.
Proponents of the change say it would boost Japan's power and prominence on the world stage. ``In that respect, politics is at a major turning point,'' said Nakasone in an interview Feb. 6. Nakasone conceded that Abe may not be able to change the constitution in a first term. ``Five years may be too short to achieve that goal,'' he said, ``but the fact that the prime minister has taken such a strong stance has probably made a good impression on voters.''
The constitution is illegitimate and riddled with errors, said Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara in a Feb. 6 interview. ``The text was written by Americans, so the Japanese is grammatically incorrect,'' Ishihara said. ``If I were an English teacher, I would give the Japanese translation a grade of 70.''
Ishihara, often described as a nationalist, says the constitution should be ``torn up'' and rewritten from scratch.
Ishihara said he doubted that Abe's declining popularity will sap his efforts to change the constitution. ``There's no use worrying too much about approval ratings because they go up and down,'' he said. ``There will be more opportunities for them to go up, so the cabinet should focus on doing a good job.''
To contact the reporter on this story: John Brinsley in Tokyo at firstname.lastname@example.org
Last Updated: February 12, 2007 17:01 EST