Prime Minister Shinzo Abe indicated his eagerness to amend the Constitution in his New Year’s news conference. He also said on NHK that he will seek to get his ruling coalition and other forces that support changing the nation’s supreme law to win a two-thirds majority in the Upper House as well — which will be needed to initiate a constitutional amendment that would be put to a national referendum. The Upper House election this summer will indeed be a major opportunity for the nation to choose whether to transform or maintain the basic principles of the postwar political regime.
The constitutional amendment sought by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is raising alarm bells that it could ruin the basic principles of constitutionalism and liberal democracy, and not just because of the content of the security laws enacted last year or the way they were drafted and legislated. Recent attempts by the Abe administration and private organizations close to the prime minister to step up pressure on the mass media also indicate that those currently in power do not understand the importance of freedom and diversity of ideas and opinions.
These days TV broadcasters increasingly tend to refrain from taking critical positions on political and social issues. It has surfaced that three journalists who have notably defied such trends and tried to discuss various issues from independent positions will be quitting their roles as newscasters or anchorpersons on their programs at the end of March.
By citing what it viewed as inaccuracies in their programs or flaws in the production process, the LDP summoned senior officials of the broadcasters of these programs and intimidated them — even by hinting at the possibility of suspending their broadcast licenses. The Abe administration installed a businessman who dared to say that when the government says right, NHK can’t very well say left as president of the public broadcaster, raising the specter of state-run broadcasting in a dictatorship. A private group made up of commentators and other people close to Abe ran an opinion ad in national newspapers naming TBS anchorman Shigetada Kishii and accusing him of unfair reporting in violation of the Broadcast Law. It is unclear whether the organization is directly connected to the administration. But the episode made it obvious that supporters of the Abe administration are eager to silence TV journalists who make comments critical of the government.
That these three journalists are being replaced at the same time may just be a coincidence. But it is undeniable that Japan’s mass media have been intimidated and tend to avoid criticism of the powers that be. What should be a common sense notion in democracy — that it is the fate of those in power to be the subject of criticism under freedom of the press and free speech — appears to have become a thing of the past in this country.
It is uncertain whether Abe will put amending the Constitution at the forefront of his campaign for the Upper House election, which he might turn into a dual election of both Diet chambers. But if his LDP wins another landslide, the prime minister will no doubt declare that his bid to amend the Constitution has been popularly endorsed. The opposition camp needs to build its political strategy this year by first grasping the grave nature of such a prospect. It’s no surprise that Democratic Party of Japan leader Katsuya Okada called stopping the constitutional revision sought by the Abe administration an urgent challenge.
However, it is entirely unclear what concrete actions the DPJ will take to do that. Since the surge of the popular movement against the security legislation last year, large numbers of citizens have called on the opposition parties to unite and cooperate to protect the Constitution.
There are calls within the DPJ that the party should first disband or alter its name if it merges with Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party). But a merger of opposition parties with scant presence will have no impact whatsoever on the current political situation. What is urgently needed for the sake of Japan’s liberal democracy is a rallying of all the forces that have a clear resolve and vision to stand up against the Abe administration.
Now that the limitations of Abenomics, with its pursuit of higher share prices and a weaker yen, have been exposed, those forces need to put up alternative socioeconomic policies founded on the Constitution’s basic principles of individual dignity and pursuit of happiness. Instead of seeking to expand business profits at the sacrifice of people’s employment and lives, the opposition parties need to come up with policies that will fight poverty, narrow the rich-poor divide and expand public services such as child care, nursing care for the elderly and education.
The opposition parties bear a grave responsibility to prevent 2016 from becoming a point of no return in the collapse of Japan’s postwar democracy and pacifism.
Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University.