Seven decades after World War II, Mr. Abe’s governing Liberal Democratic Party says the constraints placed on Japan in the conflict’s aftermath are outdated and enfeebling, and it has proposed an array of constitutional amendments, including a rollback of the charter’s pacifist clauses.
Mr. Abe argues that change is vital because a more potent and assertive China and a nuclear-armed North Korea have emerged on Japan’s doorstep. And he has offered a brasher alternative to the inward-looking exceptionalism that grew out of Hiroshima, campaigning to transform Japan into a “normal” country, with a freer military and a bigger role in global affairs.
For some, that vision runs counter to the “never again” message inscribed on Hiroshima’s war memorial, and symbolized by the skeletal atomic bomb dome preserved at ground zero nearby.
“Abe’s approach is a kind of ‘military pacifism’ that takes war as a given,” said Motofumi Asai, a former Foreign Ministry official who directed the Hiroshima Peace Institute from 2005 to 2011 and is now a professor at Osaka University of Economics and Law. “If Japanese people embrace this, they are denying their postwar constitutional pacifism.”
Japanese pacifism has always been strewn with contradictions. The “peace Constitution” has not stopped the country from rebuilding its military, though its postwar version, the Self-Defense Forces, has never fought abroad. Japan’s leaders have declined to develop nuclear weapons, but they welcome the nuclear umbrella provided by Japan’s ally, the United States. And they have endorsed American military interventions around the world, while keeping Japan out of combat.
“Japanese pacifism has been made possible by the fact that Japan is protected by the United States,” said Makoto Iokibe, a professor at Kobe University and former president of the National Defense Academy of Japan. Now, the changes sought by Mr. Abe are forcing Japan to face that paradox, in ways that make many uncomfortable.
“Japan is being asked to play a new role,” Professor Iokibe said, “and that has created a sense of crisis among traditional postwar pacifists.”
Mr. Abe has not mustered the political support needed to amend the Constitution, and many specialists say they think he never will. The bar is high: Any changes require the approval of two-thirds of both houses of Parliament and a majority of voters in a national referendum. The document has not been altered since it came into force in 1947.
But the prime minister has chipped away at many of the charter’s byproducts. Since leading the Liberal Democrats back to power in 2012, he has ordered rare increases in defense spending; lifted a decades-long prohibition on weapons exports; and passed security laws that, for the first time, allow the Self-Defense Forces to undertake combat missions overseas.
The changes have been welcomed by the Obama administration, which is trying to deepen American diplomatic and military investment in the region but needs the help of allies. At the same time, Mr. Abe’s moves have caused unease in many parts of Asia where memories of Japanese conquest and colonization are still raw, especially in China.
Mr. Abe pushed through the new security laws only after his government issued an official “reinterpretation” of the Constitution. Legal scholars and peace groups associated with Hiroshima denounced the move as an illegitimate end run to weaken the charter’s peace clause, Article 9.
In August, on the 70th anniversary of the bombing, leaders of seven groups representing bomb survivors delivered a letter to Mr. Abe demanding that he withdraw the legislation. He declined, and Parliament approved the laws the next month.
Peace groups are preparing to challenge the laws in the judiciary, but the Supreme Court of Japan has generally declined to second guess the government on national security issues.
In opinion surveys, a majority of Japanese say they disagree with Mr. Abe’s military policies. But the issue does not appear to be a priority for many. More tangible issues like Japan’s long-sputtering economy rank higher. The Liberal Democrats are well ahead in the polls, while opposition parties that have rallied around reversing the security laws languish in the single digits.
Mr. Abe’s agenda has encountered some public resistance, including modest protests against the security bills last year, but the opposition, hobbled by infighting and weak leaders, has failed to capitalize on such sentiment.
“A lot of people don’t like what Abe is doing,” Professor Asai of Osaka University of Economics and Law said, “but when they hear him and his supporters say ‘China, North Korea,’ they think it can’t be helped.”
Mr. Abe’s aides expect him to get a lift in popularity from Mr. Obama’s trip to Hiroshima. Most Japanese have welcomed the American president’s visit, even if he will not offer the apology for the bombing that some long to hear, and Mr. Abe is getting a share of the credit, to the chagrin of his beleaguered opponents.
“If Obama goes to Hiroshima, and Abe ends up looking good because of it, and that dooms Article 9, what a horrible result that would be,” said Tatsuya Yoshioka, director of Peace Boat, a group that has brought atomic bomb survivors to the United States and elsewhere to speak about their experiences.
Mr. Abe must call an election this summer for the upper house of Parliament, the House of Councillors. Aides say he is also considering dissolving the more powerful House of Representatives, turning the contest into a general election that, if his Liberal Democrats win, could keep his government in power for four more years and put supporters of constitutional change closer to their goal.
Haruko Moritaki, a veteran peace activist in Hiroshima, said she was glad Mr. Obama was coming, though she said she would like him to say that dropping the bomb was a mistake. Her father was partially blinded by the blast, and he later was one of the founders of an antinuclear campaign group, the Japan Congress Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs.
She said her biggest regret was that Mr. Obama had to share the spotlight with Mr. Abe, whose agenda she says is eroding the historical lessons embodied by the city.
“I want to see Obama at the memorial, but I don’t want to see Abe by his side,” Ms. Moritaki said. “I don’t want to see the Hiroshima memorial used.”
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