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The Diet is finally launching debate on constitutional issues, breaking a long-standing political taboo. As the ordinary Diet session opened Jan. 20, both houses created panels to conduct the first parliamentary debate on the pros and cons of constitutional amendments. All political parties will take part in the debate, even though the Japan Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party had opposed establishment of the panels.

The basic tenets of the Constitution — that sovereignty rests with the people, that human rights must be respected and that the nation forever renounces war — should be preserved. While keeping this in mind, the lawmakers hopefully will debate from a broad perspective in the attempt to establish the nation’s new basic framework and a new relationship between the state and the people.

The 50-member Lower House panel and the 45-member Upper House panel have no power to initiate legislative action for amending the Constitution. Their job is to conduct debate on constitutional issues for about five years and then compile a report.

Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone of the Liberal Democratic Party, who favors amendment, has proposed that individual political parties present their own proposals after the panels spend about three years on the debate. He says compilation of legislation regarding a national plebiscite on constitutional amendments should be started five years from now.

Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, has disclosed plans to draft his own amendments in a few years. However, many DPJ lawmakers — including Takahiro Yokomichi, who formerly belonged to the now-defunct Japan Socialist Party — are skittish about amendments.

The LDP is divided over amendments.

New Komeito, a junior partner in the tripartite ruling coalition, is determined to preserve the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution. The Liberal Party, another partner, strongly supports revision of Article 9. Both the JCP and the SDP are intent on preserving the Constitution.

These widely divergent views could forebode political realignment.

Initially, the Diet bodies are expected to investigate circumstances surrounding the compilation and promulgation of the present Constitution, and details of the debate conducted by the Commission on the Constitution under the Cabinet of Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. The panel, established in 1957, published a report in 1964 and mentioned the following issues, which are still valid:

* the Emperor system.

* the Self-Defense Forces, especially in connection with Article 9, which says “land, sea and air forces and other war potentials will never be maintained” and “the right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

* whether Cabinet members should be designated from Diet members, as at present, or whether the prime minister should be elected by popular vote.

* whether the Diet should be unicameral or bicameral.

* whether an independent court system should be established to decide on the constitutionality of laws.

* relation of the central government to local governments.

* laws for dealing with military emergencies.

Diet debate will focus on the relation between Article 9 and the right of collective self-defense. Article 9 says the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force.” It is becoming increasingly important for Japan to take part in United Nations peacekeeping operations as part of its international contribution. The government, however, has maintained that the Constitution bars Japan from exercising the right of collective self-defense, which is recognized by the U.N. Charter and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. This has made it impossible for Japan to take part in the monitoring of a ceasefire and troop disarmament, the main activities mentioned in the Japanese law for cooperation with peacekeeping operations.

The prime minister’s Commission on Japanese Goals in the 21st Century, in a report published Jan. 18, called for national debate on security, including constitutional issues and the right of collective self-defense. Some believe that there is no way for Japan to evade the issue of collective self-defense in connection with the Constitution.

Unlike the 1960s, people are now aware of their rights concerning the environment, freedom of information and privacy. They are becoming more sensitive to relations among the central and local governments and companies.

In a recent plebiscite held in Tokushima, the majority voted against a proposal to build a dam across the Yoshino River. There have been 10 plebiscites since 1996, when a majority voted against the proposed construction of a nuclear power station in Maki, Niigata Prefecture. National plebiscites could also be a topic of the political debate.

The commission’s report also said individuals will have much greater power in the 21st century and suggested two core changes: Changing the methods and systems whereby citizens interact with the state and redefining and rebuilding the relationship between the individual and the public domain.

Ideological confrontations over the half-century-old Constitution ended with the collapse of the “1955 political system” dominated by the LDP and the defunct JSP. Under former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who headed an LDP-dominated coalition government, the JSP accepted the Japan-U.S. security system and the SDF’s constitutionality. The LDP, meanwhile, effectively gave up its demand for an independent Japanese Constitution.

The Diet’s constitutional review panels should not repeat the past unproductive debate on the security system. I believe that the debate should focus on the relationship between the individual and the state from a global viewpoint to establish a new vision for the nation.

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