A Lower House constitutional research panel last week released an interim report summarizing nearly three years of its discussions. The voluminous document covers a wide range of subjects, including the Emperor system, roles of the Self-Defense Forces and basic human rights. However, it leaves open the question of whether or how the Constitution should be amended.

The report objectively states, item by item, all views expressed by its members and outside experts. It offers no conclusion on any item. However, views calling for change take up more space than those supporting the status quo. This indicates that opinion is growing in favor of revising the national charter, which has never been amended since it was established in 1947.

The summary includes, for example, comments supporting the popular election of a prime minister and introduction of a constitutional court. It also refers to a need for “new human rights,” such as the right to a clean environment. Most significant, the war-renouncing Article 9 is covered more extensively than any other subject, with members who favor a revision outnumbering those who oppose it.

The growing concern for constitutional reform reflects some of the historic changes that have occurred here and abroad over the past half century. Particularly, the end of the Cold War has taken the steam out of the rigid standoff between antirevision and prorevision schools and introduced a good measure of flexibility into the debate.

The summary on Article 9, presented under the heading “Security and International Cooperation,” includes a statement calling for a revision to allow the SDF to participate in U.N.-organized or multinational forces. Another statement says this controversial article is now out of touch with reality. There are also prominent references to specific issues such as SDF response to foreign attacks and a collective security system. The question that remains is how to meet real security needs while maintaining the pacifist principles of the Constitution.

Opinion on the Emperor system is also divided. The majority view, however, embraces the current status of the Emperor as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people.” Some believe that Article 1 should be rewritten to make the Emperor the head of state. There is also a view that a woman should be allowed to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne.

It is notable that the report includes a number of new subjects that are not covered by the present Constitution. One is the popular election of a prime minister. This will promote direct democracy, but opponents and skeptics say it could conflict with the Emperor’s status. They also fear it might increase the risks of populism.

Another involves “new human rights,” such as privacy rights, the right to live in a clean environment, the right to know the truth, the right to request disclosure of government-held data, and the right to access information networks. However, opinion is split on whether to state these “new values” in the Constitution.

There are also pros and cons on a variety of other issues, such as abolition of the death penalty, introduction of an optional separate-name system for couples, easing of the eligibility requirements for foreigners’ acquisition of Japanese nationality and allowing long-term foreign residents to participate in local public elections.

Creating a constitutional court is also a new topic of discussion — an idea that reflects a view that the Supreme Court has tended to avoid exercising its right to examine cases involving possible violations of the Constitution. Promoting local autonomy — by creating a new federal system, for example — is also an important item in the report.

It is welcome that the issue of constitutional reform, a taboo for much of the postwar period, is beginning to attract wider attention. The Diet began a formal debate in January 2000 when a research panel was created in both chambers. Credit goes to the 50-member Lower House panel for doing such an exhaustive study.

It appears, however, that there is as yet not much enthusiasm for reform, not only among the panel members but also among Diet members in general. Under the circumstances, the public also remains unenthusiastic. Perhaps it will take some drastic change in the domestic or international situation to create a national consensus for a constitutional revision.

The Lower House research commission has until 2005 to complete a final report. As things stand, there is no telling how the debate will end. But if it fails to produce any constructive conclusion, or something close to it, the goal of bringing the Constitution more in line with reality will remain as elusive as ever.

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