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A Lower House panel on constitutional reform last week ended five years of discussions after presenting a final report to the Speaker. An Upper House panel is due to submit a similar report later this month. It is the first time since the Constitution was promulgated in 1946 that the Diet has conducted such a comprehensive debate on the national charter.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which observes the 50th anniversary of its founding in November, is seeking a vote on a national referendum bill during an extraordinary Diet session this autumn. The bill, which would set ground rules for a constitutional amendment, is likely to receive the backing of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

There is, however, no compelling reason to hastily enact such procedural legislation at this stage. Prospects for a national referendum — which must be proposed by at least two-thirds of Diet members — remain clouded. The international environment surrounding Japan is also uncertain. For example, it is unclear whether Japan will be able to win enough support for its bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

The fact that a national consensus has yet to be formed and the related international situation remains fluid suggests that it would be better to conduct further debate while keeping abreast of how these factors develop. Procedures for an amendment can be established after public opinion has crystallized on the divisive issues of defense and security.

The focal point of reform is the war-renouncing Article 9. This article, written more than a half-century ago, is out of touch with today’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF). Plainly, a Constitution detached from reality must be updated.

In an opinion poll last December, 79 percent of the respondents approved of an amendment. In a similar poll the previous year, 81 percent responded positively. This indicates that the majority of Japanese want to see a constitutional update.

The devil is in the details. Opinion is sharply split over the right to collective self-defense and overseas deployment of the SDF. In the same poll, 34 percent said the government should not change its interpretation that Japan is constitutionally prohibited from exercising this right, while 22 percent said a clause clearly prohibiting such a right should be inserted in the Constitution.

The Lower House panel was also divided on this issue, with its 50 members presenting three different lines of argument: (1) collective security action should be approved without setting specific limits; (2) it should be approved under specific limits; and (3) it should not be approved.

The LDP, which plans to draft an amendment bill this autumn, wants to include an explicit statement in the Constitution that Japan “may possess armed forces for the purposes of self-defense and international contribution.” With public opinion widely divided over the aims and roles of the SDF, however, it is premature to work out a bill acceptable to two-thirds or more of Diet members and a majority of the people.

The running controversy over Article 9 has polarized Japanese postwar politics. One group of politicians has argued that Japan should bolster its military power through stretched interpretations of the article. The other group has maintained that reality should be adjusted to the article, not the other way round.

The “protect the Constitution” camp once refused even to discuss the matter. For instance, the Japan Socialist Party boycotted a constitutional review panel created by law in the Cabinet in 1957. In 1964, the panel broke up after releasing an inconclusive report — the product of seven years of debate conducted without Socialist members.

By contrast, the Research Commission on the Constitution, established in January 2001, has provided a broad forum for national debate. In both houses the panel has conducted 450 hours of debate and heard views from a wide range of people. It has also held hearings in nine cities throughout the country.

The need for an in-depth national debate goes without saying. However, there is little sense in establishing a procedural law at a time when the more important bill — one to rewrite the Constitution — remains an uncertainty.

According to the government’s interpretation, SDF troops can be deployed to countries where fighting continues, like Iraq, even under the present Constitution, providing that their activities are limited to humanitarian support in noncombat areas. Given this, what other international contributions do the liberal Democrats have in mind? With some Asian nations still casting a critical eye at Japan’s perception of its wartime history, there is no need for haste in changing the Constitution’s pacifist principles.

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