Fifty-eight years ago, on May 3, 1947, the postwar Constitution of Japan came into effect. Today this new national charter, underscored by its pacifist principles, is broadly accepted by the Japanese public. Yet, strange as it may seem, this is a constitution enacted by Imperial order, not by popular vote.

According to a textbook definition, constitutions divide into two categories: those established by referendum and those promulgated by a king or emperor. The Japanese Constitution was promulgated on Nov. 3, 1946, under an Imperial edict in which the Emperor expressed “deep pleasure” that the foundation had been laid for the construction of a new Japan in accordance with the will of the Japanese people.

It is not known exactly how the new charter was written in the immediate postwar years. What is clear, though, is that it represents, procedurally, a revision of the Meiji Constitution of 1889, also known as the Constitution of the Great Empire of Japan.

The Japanese people participated only indirectly in the revision since the old Constitution had been approved by the Imperial Parliament. In other words, Japanese citizens were not given an opportunity to express their will individually, although the present Constitution makes clear that sovereign power “resides with the people.”

If a constitutional reform bill is put to a referendum, the Japanese people will formally exercise their right to create a constitution on their own for the first time since the end of World War II. Although that opportunity may not come anytime soon, how to change the Constitution is now a realistic question.

Recently the constitutional research panels in both houses of the Diet released their final reports after completing five years of debate. Although wide differences remain — particularly on the issue of national security — there is no doubt that points of argument have been sorted out.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which observes its 50th anniversary this autumn, is planning to unveil a draft of the new Constitution it envisions. The Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition group, is moving toward drafting its own revision plan. Any amendment, however, must be approved by referendum, as stated in the Constitution. Currently, however, no specific rules are established for holding such a popular vote. So the LDP and its coalition partner, New Komeito, are pushing for a “national referendum bill.” The DPJ is reportedly moving in the same direction.

It is important that the proposed legislation sets the kind of ground rules that allow for effective voter participation in the constitutional amendment process. For that purpose, a number of specific questions need to be addressed: First is whether a referendum should be held on specific changes or general issues. Second, what should be the minimum age of eligible voters? Should it be 20 or 18? Third, how soon should a referendum be held after it is proposed? Fourth, should restrictions be imposed on the media, such as banning publication of advance opinion polls?

On the first question, the coalition plan remains vague. It says only that decisions will be made later during the drafting of an amendment bill. The DPJ is also undecided. The Social Democratic Party believes that voters should express their views on specific changes.

The question boils down to this: What is the best method of allowing the people to create their own constitution? Answers are complicated by the diversity of issues involved, ranging from the war-renouncing Article 9 to the right to a clean environment.

Many people, while opposing any change to the article, want to see the environmental right included. Others are wary of codifying too many rights in the national charter. Still others maintain that the law should explicitly state the right to self-defense.

Given such divergent opinions, a “package” referendum that sets aside specific questions would only confuse the voters. In such a general ballot, many may vote no, thinking that it is better to keep the status quo, or yes if they feel that change will somehow improve things.

Since such a referendum could not accurately reflect the will of the people, it may be that politicians aiming for a package vote want to change the controversial Article 9 under cover of generally acceptable proposals, such as inserting the environmental right. Holding a referendum on an item-by-item basis will be best.

Imposing media restrictions is out of the question. The worry is that, in extreme cases, reporting in favor of certain constitutional changes might be prohibited. For the people to choose a constitution of their own, it is essential to allow free and active expression of opinion as well as freedom of the press.

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