As the ordinary Diet session opened Jan. 20, the tripartite ruling bloc and the opposition forces squared off over a proposal to cut the number of Lower House seats. With a dissolution of the Lower House for a snap election looming, sharp rivalry is brewing between the coalition, made up of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and New Komeito, and the opposition camp, consisting of the Democratic Party of Japan, the Japan Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party.

Despite the turbulence, the ruling and opposition forces agreed to set up panels in both Houses for debating the pros and cons of constitutional amendments.

This is the first time in four decades that formal debate on the Constitution will be conducted, after discussions by the Cabinet’s Commission on the Constitution (1957-64) set up under of Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. Debate on constitutional amendments had been considered taboo amid heated ideological confrontations between the LDP and the now-defunct Japan Socialist Party since 1955. The establishment of the new Diet panels is highly significant in Japanese political history.

The 50-member Lower House panel is led by Taro Nakayama of the LDP, while its 45-member Upper House counterpart is chaired by Masakuni Murakami, also of the LDP.

The Lower House body includes LDP members such as former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, Taku Yamasaki, Kazuo Aichi, Hiroshi Mitsuzuka, Junichiro Koizumi and Maki Tanaka; the DPJ’s Michihiko Kano, Setsuo Yokomichi, and Yoshito Sengoku; New Komeito’s Yoneo Hirata; the LP’s Takeshi Noda; the JCP’s Kazuo Shii; and the SDP’s Shigeru Ito.

The Upper House panel includes the LDP’s Kimitaka Kuze and Keizo Takemi; the DPJ’s Yukihisa Yoshida and Satsuki Eda; New Komeito’s Kazuyoshi Shirahama; the JCP’s Shinji Koizumi; the SDP’s Hideo Den; the LP’s Chikage Ogi; Sanin-no-kai’s Motoo Shiina; and Niin Club’s Michio Sato.

These lawmakers are expected to freely express their opinions on constitutional issues.

Nakayama, chairman of the Lower House panel, has been instrumental in establishing the bodies. He has promoted dialogues between pro- and anticonstitutional revision forces by establishing a group of lawmakers interested in the issues.

It has been half a century since the present Constitution was promulgated in 1947. The charter was written in 1945 during the postwar U.S. Occupation of Japan, just before the Cold War began. The Constitution, the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty and the 1952 Japan-U.S. Security Treaty have influenced Japan’s destiny in the past half century. This combination gave birth to the postwar confrontation between the LDP and the JSP — or between pro- and anticonstitutional revision forces.

The Cold War ended in 1991. Since then, the international situation has dramatically changed. Changes in the international situation and public perceptions have led to the birth of the panels for discussing the pros and cons of amending the basic law, transcending the previous taboo.

The 1889 Meiji Constitution was valid for 56 years. The present Constitution has now been in force for 53 years and it is natural that Japan should now review its merits and demerits.

However, we should be wary of possible moves by revisionist forces to demand quick amendments or by their opponents to overreact.

Some revisionists say constitutional debate should be conducted over three to five years, while others say it should be concluded by 2008. In my opinion, there should be no rush. Objective, dispassionate debate on the merits and demerits of the 50-year-old charter should be conducted.

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