Japan’s conservative-leaning Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has dominated Japanese politics since the Second World War, has tried for years to change the country’s constitutional commitment to demilitarization. Under current Prime Minster Shinzo Abe this effort appeared likely to succeed, but today change again looks unlikely. To understand why, we need to grasp how this “constitutional cleavage” is a core element of Japanese party competition.1 Here I provide the background to this issue and set Abe’s recent problems within this framework.
How Japan got, and kept, its present constitution
The present Japanese constitution was enacted in November 1946 by the Japanese Diet, with significant influence from the occupying Allied powers. For some conservative politicians, this has always meant that the constitution was “imposed.”
This shared view was a motive in the 1955 merger of two conservative parties, the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party, to form the Liberal Democratic Party. The new party hoped to win the two-thirds majority of both houses required to initiate a constitutional amendment. Also in 1955, just prior to the LDP merger, the Leftist Socialist Party and the Rightist Socialist Party merged to form the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ) – in large part to oppose the constitutional amendment.
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