The Constitution turns 70

Japan’s Constitution, which took effect 70 years ago, may be facing the most intense pressures ever for amendment as proponents of revising the supreme law, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition, now have the two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Diet required to initiate an amendment for approval in a national referendum. However, there does not appear to be any broad public consensus yet on what part of the Constitution should be changed, how and why — which seems to reflect a lack of pressing practical needs for an amendment.

The prime minister does not hide his own ambitions to get the Constitution amended while he is in office — where he can potentially stay until 2021. During a ceremony late last month to commemorate the Constitution’s 70th anniversary, Abe said a constitution “should speak of the nation’s future and its ideal state” and advocated the need to “paint an ideal picture of the nation for the new times.” The Constitution should not be amended just to fulfill the agendas of politicians or political parties, nor merely because there is the political window of opportunity in the form of the proponents’ grip on a Diet majority. Voters — who hold the ultimate say on a constitutional amendment — should see through the political arguments and decide for themselves what they want the Constitution to be.

In fact, parties that trumpet the need for a constitutional amendment do not have a consensus on the specifics of how the Constitution should be revised. Even Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, whose draft amendment in 2012 called for sweeping changes including revising the war-renouncing Article 9, is seeking to start the amendment on issues over which it hopes a broad political and public endorsement can be expected — such as giving the government emergency powers in a national crisis and extending the tenures of Lower House members if they expire just as the nation is hit by a major disaster — before working on more divisive matters such as Article 9.

People seem to realize, however, that Article 9 will be the crux of constitutional amendment — whether or not they support a revision. In a Kyodo News poll taken late last month, nearly half of the respondents who said an amendment is necessary cited “Article 9 and the Self-Defense Forces” in a multiple-choice format on what should be the priority issue in revising the Constitution. Roughly half of the pollees who denied the need for an amendment said they support the Constitution as it is because its war-renouncing text has maintained the peace in postwar Japan.

The Kyodo survey paints a mixed picture of public opinion over the Constitution, particularly Article 9. A total of 60 percent of the pollees called an amendment of the Constitution “necessary” or “rather necessary,” as opposed to 37 percent who replied that an amendment is either “not necessary” or “rather not necessary.” The pollees are more split on revising Article 9 — 49 percent in favor and 47 percent not in favor. A majority of those in favor of revising Article 9 cite “changes in the security environment surrounding Japan,” such as North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile development as well as China’s military buildup. On the other hand, three-quarters of all respondents said Japan never engaged in the use of force overseas in its postwar years “because of Article 9,” giving it credit for the nation’s pacifist path since its World War II defeat.

Article 9 says “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes,” and goes on to say that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” Japan has had the Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces since 1954, however, and the government has explained that the war-renouncing Constitution does not deny the nation the right to defend itself against enemy attacks. The Abe administration meanwhile altered the government’s long-standing interpretation of Article 9 and got its security legislation, which allows the SDF to engage in acts of collective self-defense with the nation’s allies and significantly expands the scope of its overseas missions, enacted in 2015 amid sharply divided public opinion.

The Constitution may not have been amended at all since it entered into force seven decades ago. But the government has indeed interpreted Article 9 to fit its policy needs of the times. If the Abe administration and the LDP have their eyes set on changing Article 9, they should come out and clearly explain why it needs to be changed and how — and ask for people’s judgment.