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Critics draw attention to flaws in Japan’s referendum system ahead of plebiscite on amending the Constitution

by

Kyodo

While debate continues on whether to amend the nation’s pacifist Constitution, less attention has been given to the referendum system under which the public will give its final say.

If such a vote is held, it will be Japan’s first-ever national plebiscite on any topic. But critics say that without addressing at least some of what they see as flaws in the constitutional referendum law, the historic event could leave a bitter aftertaste.

One contentious point of the law is whether it ensures a level playing field in the use of political advertising ahead of the referendum, with the only notable regulation being a ban on paid TV and radio ads for two weeks prior to the vote.

Masaki Miyamoto, a 44-year-old movie director, said he was hardly aware of referendum procedures while filming “Article 9” several years ago, which depicts young people clashing over whether to revise the law governing the renouncing of war.

But after he began studying the law about a year and a half ago as a member of a civic group led by Hajime Imai, a journalist and referendum expert, Miyamoto came to feel the necessity for an outright TV-ad ban throughout the whole referendum campaign.

“As a filmmaker who knows how strongly video footage can influence people, I’m most disturbed that TV ads are banned only for 14 days,” Miyamoto said, noting that regulations still allow wealthy groups to flood airwaves with ads that favor their positions during the 60-to-180-day campaigning period that is expected to take place.

“Some politicians may say we should think about changing the rules after trying (the referendum) once. But it’s important that the first plebiscite is conducted at a quality level and in a fair manner,” he said.

The constitutional referendum law was enacted in May 2007 when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, then in his first stint as the country’s leader, sought to lay the groundwork for the first amendment of the Constitution, which was enacted in 1947.

The law has since faced criticism, with an Upper House panel resolution citing a number of issues that required further consideration, including advertising and the minimum voter-turnout threshold.

Nevertheless, over the past 10 years, no substantial progress had been seen toward revisiting campaign ad rules, prompting members of Hajime Imai’s civic group to lobby for tougher regulations and to seek ways to raise public awareness over the issue.

Miyamoto is now working with Imai to make a documentary film on a two-day mock national referendum event that will bring together around a dozen people who will debate and vote on a set of prepared Article 9 amendment proposals.

“We hope to draw attention to both the discussions on Article 9 and the constitutional referendum law,” Miyamoto said. “Just getting people to know that a national referendum may be held is the first step (in noticing problems with the law).”

Another member of the civic group, Ryu Homma, a former ad agency employee who worked at Hakuhodo Inc., released a booklet last September highlighting the huge costs involved in TV advertising and the advantages one side could enjoy under what he calls Japan’s “unique” advertising industry structure, which is dominated by one company.

According to Homma, a 15-second TV ad during prime time can cost several million yen. The cost could balloon to hundreds of millions of yen to run a TV commercial in the five major metropolitan areas for two weeks — the level of exposure seen necessary to ensure the swaying of public opinion.

He also said campaigns that tie up with the leading ad agency will likely have greater access to certain prime-time TV time slots and other advertising spots, leaving the rest of the field with “leftover” slots with fewer viewers.

Some members are also concerned that TV ads tend to appeal to emotions rather than logic and thus will not promote rational debate over an issue that will decide the future shape of the country.

But it remains to be seen whether the efforts by the civic group members have enough time to make headway over the issue. A referendum may be looming within a year or so as Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party is gearing up to work out its amendment proposals by late March.

Abe has taken a cautious stance toward revising the referendum law, saying at a plenary session in the Diet on Jan. 25 that the “conclusion” at the time of the law’s enactment was to impose “minimum necessary” regulations to ensure fair campaign advertising.

Meanwhile, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force in the House of Representatives, has said it will work toward crafting a bill to revise the referendum law to ensure tougher regulations on campaign advertising.

Even if Japan leans toward introducing stricter rules, how to strike a balance between freedom of expression and fair campaigning will require careful discussion.

Countries like Britain — whose 2016 Brexit vote on whether to remain in the European Union grabbed international attention —, France and Switzerland prohibit paid TV and radio ads in the lead-up to referendums. The United States, for its part, takes a minimalist approach in regulating political ads, according to a study by Japan’s National Diet Library.

Yasuhiko Tajima, a Sophia University professor specializing in media theory, said he is against setting an outright ban on broadcast advertising given that being able to air ideas through ads is “a crucial part” of maintaining freedom of expression.

But he recognizes the need to address unfair advantages due to differences in financial resources.

“I don’t think pouring in money will necessarily ensure victory — in other words, voters shouldn’t be viewed too much as people who can be made fools of (by easily being swayed by manipulative ads),” he said. “But being well-financed is undeniably an advantage and we may need something like a spending limit to ensure a fair contest.”