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Amending Constitution emerges as poll issue

High-riding nationalists say timing ripe for breaking postwar taboo

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

As it marks its 66th anniversary, the fate of Japan’s Constitution is set to become the focus of a political battle both in and beyond July’s Upper House election.

For the first time since its enforcement on May 3, 1947, politicians have realistically started talking about revising some articles of the Constitution, breaking a long-held political taboo of the postwar decades.

The Liberal Democratic Party, led by hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), headed by the even more rightwing Shintaro Ishihara, have vowed to make constitutional revision one of their pledges for July’s House of Councilors election, a move likely to stir public debate and political chaos across the nation.

Altering the wording of the Occupation-drafted Constitution — especially Article 9, which bans the use of force — has been considered off-limits since Japan lost its Shinto-driven war in 1945. But given the LDP’s overwhelming Lower House poll victory in December and the Cabinet’s sky-high ratings, amending it has emerged as an irresistible temptation to Abe and company.

“Most people had believed you can’t hold a national referendum (on constitutional revision) . . . but that possibility may be finally emerging,” Abe told the Japan National Press Club on April 19. “The best opportunity for the nation to discuss it is an election.”

As far as the House of Representatives is concerned, Abe may be correct because most of the members appear ready to revise Article 9.

Last November, the Asahi Shimbun sent questionnaires to those running in the Lower House race and received valid answers from 454 of the 480 lawmakers — covering 95 percent of all those who ended up winning seats in the chamber.

Some 89 percent of the politicians said that at least some of the articles in the Constitution should be amended, up from 59 percent in the previous poll after the 2009 general election.

The same poll also said that 79 percent of the respondents answered that Japan should be allowed to exercise the right to collective self-defense as defined by the United Nations.

The government has long interpreted Article 9 as prohibiting Japan from exercising this right, because the use of force is implied when coming to the aid of an ally under attack, and exercising the U.N. right would drastically widen the scope of Japan’s military cooperation with the U.S., which has been unpopular.

However, as far as the Upper House is concerned, it still seems a long shot that prorevision parties will occupy more than two-thirds of the 242-member chamber after the July poll, since only half of the seats are contested every three years.

First they’ll have to water down Article 96. The ruling LDP and major opposition force Nippon Ishin, as well as the minor group Your Party, are clearly calling for revising Article 96 to lower the bar for enacting constitutional amendments, a campaign spearheaded by Abe.

Article 96 stipulates that revisions to the Constitution must be initiated by the Diet through a concurring vote of two-thirds or more of all the members of each house, allowing the legislature to propose a national referendum on the issue.

But to secure the 162 votes in the House of Councilors that would be necessary to set a referendum in motion, the three parties would need to more than double their share of the seats up for grabs in the upcoming election.

The three currently hold a combined 100 seats in the chamber, but of these, only 40 will be contested in the summer.

For now, top executives of the LDP are trying to use the constitutional revision issue as powerful leverage to split the opposition camp and form a stable majority in the Upper House, which at present is under the control of opposition forces.

Members of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, already are divided over the matter.

On April 25, a cross-party association of lawmakers including DPJ members Kiyomi Tsujiimoto and Shoichi Kondo launched a campaign for protecting the Constitution, in particular Article 9. On the other hand, right-leaning DPJ members such as former Vice Defense Minister Shu Watanabe, have been holding meetings recently over the launch of another cross-party association calling for the revision of Article 96.

“I’d like to make the chances of achieving constitutional revision more realistic,” Watanabe wrote in his blog March 15.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s right-hand man, is meanwhile trying to woo Nippon Ishin, the second-largest opposition force, to the LDP’s side.

In a speech delivered March 7 in Fukuoka, Suga openly argued that amending Article 96, consolidating local governments and social security-related issues should be top items in July’s campaign agenda.

The last two points have long been among the utmost priorities for Nippon Ishin’s two leaders, Ishihara and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto.

Two days later, Suga, who has repeatedly met with Nippon Ishin executives, arranged a face-to-face meeting between Abe and Hashimoto at the prime minister’s office. During their encounter, the two reportedly agreed on the necessity to first revise Article 96, which stipulates the two-thirds majority threshold in both chambers necessary to set up a referendum.

The LDP and Nippon Ishin have argued the article should be revised to cut this requirement to half of the lawmakers in each chamber.

Many constitutional scholars, however, have criticized the two parties for attempting to amend Article 96 without conveying the articles they would subsequently aim to revise or why.

To prevent a ruling political force from abusing its power, the constitutions of most major advanced countries have set stricter requirements than a simple parliamentary majority, said Setsu Kobayashi, a professor and expert on constitutional issues at Keio University.

“A (modern) constitution is something to protect the rights of the people from abuse of power (by the state). (LDP members) don’t understand at all the basics of what a (modern) constitution should be” like, Kobayashi said.

Historically, entities or individuals wielding absolute power have abused this authority to oppress the people. Modern constitutions have thus been drawn up to protect citizens from tyranny and corruption by laying out rules that restrain governing entities, Kobayashi pointed out.

Since a ruling political force usually holds at least a simple majority in the Diet, stricter requirements than a simple majority are logically needed to prevent arbitrary revision of the Constitution, Kobayashi argued.

Despite the heated political discussions, the public appears to be more reluctant about amending the Constitution.

An NHK poll conducted from April 5 to 8 showed 39 percent of the 1,057 respondents felt that certain articles of the Constitution should be revised — down 8 points from the public broadcaster’s previous survey six years ago, when Abe was serving his first, ill-fated, stint as prime minister.

And the poll also found that 21 percent said no article whatsoever should be revised, an increase of 1 point from 2007.

  • Casper Steuperaert

    Take it from me, a Belgian, that the prime minister should be VERY careful amending article 96 of his constitution. My country doesn’t have such an article and our constitution is being reworked constantly. It would be better for Abe to just vote for the articles he wants to see reworked instead of reworking the article that makes such drastic changes difficult.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Thanks for the clarification regarding Article 96, as well as the informative quotes by Japanese constitutional scholars.
    The actions by the Abe administration and allied political factions attempting to play on nationalism need saturated coverage, as they represent the greatest threat to civil society in Japan since pre-WWII times.

  • Victor

    Participation of the Japanese people in voting during general elections is ridiculously low. Changing the constitution has to come only after voting in the general elections has been made compulsory.

  • C321

    This article fails to properly address the real aim of the constitutional changes – that is the ending of the protection of Japanese peoples` human rights, apparently Abe doesn’t think Japanese people deserve the same rights as citizens of other westernised democracies. In the 2012 draft the LDP released they intend to roll back freedom of speech, media freedoms and many other shocking changes. I wonder why the media is ignoring this and focusing only on article 9 and 96 changes? In my opinion these are just smoke screens for the real changes Abe want to make.