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The postwar Constitution of Japan, which was put into effect in 1947, will come up for formal and continuous debate for the first time in the ordinary Diet session that opens on Friday. It is unclear, however, whether the Constitutional Review Council — which was created last year in both houses — is seeking to rewrite the pacifist Constitution or whether it will only sort out issues involved while leaving open the possibility of an eventual revision.

The “debate only” approach seems more likely. Even proponents of a “new constitution” concede the dire difficulty of making amendments in the foreseeable future, citing the constitutional clause that requires “a concurring vote of two-thirds or more of all the members of each House.”

It is also unclear how council reports will be presented. Opinion is divided over whether results of discussions should be consolidated to produce specific conclusions or merely summarized by stating pros and cons, and whether minority views, possibility extreme ones, should also be stated. These questions have been left unsettled deliberately — for now at least — because, if addressed at this point, they will delay or even derail the debate itself.

That is how pro-revision members want to begin the debate — with no strings attached. However, they seem to have a hidden agenda: If it becomes clear as the debate takes that it is going in the direction they want it to go, then they would propose reorganizing the council into a committee that would have the power to submit revision bills. One wonders whether they are not aiming to ram through their plans at an opportune time, with little regard for public opinion. That is wrong. The Constitution is the supreme law of the nation. Legislative action should be initiated, if need be, only on matters that are supported by the majority of the people.

Previously, a Cabinet council headed by a noted scholar of Anglo-American law, the late Kenzo Takayanagi, started discussions on 10 selected questions. They included: (1) What is the right kind of constitution Japan should have? (2) What approach should be taken to amending the current Constitution? (3) What is the desirable form of the Emperor system? (4) How should Japan’s self-defense system be maintained?

The new parliamentary review council is expected to start with a few similar questions at subcommittees. The revisionists want the council to give direction to the debate in about two years following a round of preparations, including examination of reference materials, soliciting opinions of outside experts, free and informal discussions among legislators, public hearings at the national and local levels and overseas tours, which would be comparative constitutional studies.

The course of the discussions depend largely on the subjects the council selects. For starters, to avoid initial turmoil, council members are likely to settle for items that are relatively easy to handle, such as giving full fiscal autonomy to local governments and the statutes of the Lower and Upper Houses. Discussing these matters may be necessary to familiarize the public with the issue of constitutional revision, but these are not matters of such pressing importance that, if no revisions are made, the people will suffer inconvenience in their daily lives.

The most controversial question, of course, is whether war-renouncing Article 9 should be amended and, if so, how. The revisionists must tackle these questions sooner or later. With a large part of the public skeptical about the wisdom of rewriting that particular clause, the revisionists need to explain, clearly and convincingly, why Japan must make military contributions to secure its say in the international community and why that will entail certain sacrifices on the part of the people.

The challenge for antirevision members is to present a cogent view on the contemporary significance of Article 9. A revision should not be made merely to bridge the gap between the realities of the SDF and the wording of that article. Nor should it be pushed through merely to better facilitate the operation of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.

Launching parliamentary discussions does not necessarily mean the start of debates on this basic law, nor does it mean heading toward the ultimate goal of reducing the constitutional pacifism. There can also be a revision that would strengthen restraints on the so-called “stretched interpretation” through which the Liberal Democratic Party, during the 38 years of its one-party rule up to mid-1993, managed to expand the nation’s military capability. The council should serve as an arena to shed light on both good and bad points in the Constitution so that a reasonable national debate can be conducted on this basic law. Political debates should come later.

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