The Diet on Monday passed a bill to establish procedures for a national referendum to revise the Constitution. The bill was a key agenda item for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a conservative who has repeatedly stressed his intention to revise the Constitution, which was drafted in 1947 under the Allied Occupation.

According to Article 96 of the Constitution, any changes to the charter must have two-thirds of the vote in both Diet chambers, followed by a national referendum. No legal framework to hold a referendum had been set for 60 years.

Why is this bill significant?

This is the first time that Japan has actually taken a concrete step toward revising the Constitution. With this new law, to take effect in three years, revisions could eventually be made to Article 9, which renounces war and has prevented Japan from officially possessing a military.

Who will be allowed to vote?

Under the current plan, all citizens age 18 and over will be allowed to participate in the national referendum.

Isn’t the legal voting age 20 and over?

Yes. Therefore, the referendum bill added that the minimum voting age for a national referendum will be 20 until necessary legal measures are taken to change the legal voting age. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party originally proposed 20 as the minimum age for the referendum but agreed to change it to 18 in accordance with a proposal by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

But critics point out that it could take time to actually change the minimum voting age to 18 because bringing down the legal adult age would affect various other laws, including the legal age to drink and smoke. No debate has taken place at the Diet as to what to do with the minimum drinking and smoking ages.

What are the conditions for proposing bills to revise the Constitution?

Proposals on constitutional revision must be made item by item, such as revising the war-renouncing Article 9, instead of as a comprehensive package of revisions. To be submitted, a bill must have the support of more than 100 Lower House lawmakers or 50 Upper House lawmakers. Then, if the vote on the bill exceeds two-thirds of both houses of the Diet, it is turned over to the general public. The referendum bill states that the referendum must be held between 60 to 180 days after approval by two-thirds of the Diet.

What if voter turnout is low?

Regardless of how many people vote, the decision will be based on the majority of all valid votes. Critics argue that a minimum voter turnout should be set, especially in light of the recent trend toward lower turnouts. Without it, major amendments to the Constitution could be passed with the participation of only a relative handful of the general public.

Who is trying to revise the Constitution and why?

The main force is the LDP, which declared in 1955, when the party was established, that one of its goals was to amend the Constitution. The key issue is Article 9, which prohibits Japan from possessing a military. In 2005, the party drew up a draft bill in which it rewrote the clause so that Japan can officially possess “a military for defense.”

Made up of both conservative and liberal lawmakers, the DPJ meanwhile is divided over revising the Constitution. Although the party also announced a proposal for a revision in 2005, the party has yet to come up with a draft bill rewriting the Constitution.

What about the other political parties?

The LDP’s coalition partner, New Komeito, has suggested not revising the existing clauses but adding new ones to the current Constitution to suit the times, such as articles addressing environmental and privacy rights. The Japanese Communist Party and Social Democratic Party are against revising the Constitution, mainly to protect Article 9.

How soon could the LDP revise the Constitution?

It is hard to say, but the referendum bill itself will not take effect for three years, so legally, any time after that. Critics, however, are doubtful that revisions will take place any time soon because to secure a two-thirds majority in both the Lower and Upper houses, the LDP will need the cooperation of the DPJ.

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