Now that political forces in favor of revising the Constitution have secured two-thirds majorities in both chambers of the Diet, the Abe administration is expected to embark on concrete steps toward initiating an amendment. Meanwhile, Emperor Akihito’s televised message to the people indicating his wish to abdicate is about to put reform of the postwar Imperial system on the political agenda. More than seven decades after the end of World War II, Japan’s polity is now at a major crossroads.

In his 1990 book “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe,” sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf makes a distinction between “normal politics,” which mainly concerns distribution of resources, and “constitutional politics,” where the ways of a nation’s political system itself are contested. His model shows constitutional politics become active when democratization of a country rapidly progresses — before the transition to normal politics once the constitutional system is established.

In the case of Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party effectively gave up its bid to amend the Constitution in the wake of the uproar over revising the Japan-U.S. security treaty in 1960, paving the way for successive LDP governments to flex their governance capabilities in an era of full-blown normal politics. However, the basso ostinato of the party’s platform for creating a “self-drafted” constitution did not die away. Now Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to push constitutional politics to the front in an attempt to draw attention away from the economy. But due to the question raised by the Emperor’s message, Abe’s pursuit of constitutional politics may not proceed as he had intended.

In his classic work “The English Constitution,” the 19th century British journalist Walter Bagehot discusses the significance of the monarchy in a modern nation-state where people’s sovereign power and democracy are the guiding principles. Bagehot divided the governing mechanism of the country into a “dignified,” or symbolic, component and an “efficient” part where things actually work and get done, and explained that the monarch accounts for the former and the Parliament and the Cabinet are responsible for the latter. In a constitutional monarchy, the king who “reigns but does not govern” maintains little more than a ceremonial existence. Still, that is not a passive status but rather carries the important role of ensuring the polity’s legitimacy.

Japan’s emperor system similarly accounts for the “signified” component, but it has characteristics different from the British monarchy that have gradually evolved over a long period.

When the absolute monarchy created (based on the German model) after the Meiji Restoration collapsed with Japan’s defeat in World War II, the Imperial system was allowed to continue to exist as a “symbol of the state” amid the political pressures of the Potsdam Declaration and the enactment of the postwar Constitution. Therefore, the state that is symbolized by the emperor is Japan as a pacifist democracy, as manifested by these political documents.

The current Emperor fully understands this and particularly as if to go against the tide of fading public memories of the war has spoken to the people about where the spirit of postwar Japan lies. The Emperor’s prayers for the souls of victims of the war, as well as his expressions of deep sympathy toward people in Okinawa and Minamata — areas that have been sacrificed in modern Japan’s drive to prosperity — represent his active initiatives to expand the significance of peace.

In his latest message, the Emperor made his intention clear that the person in his position needs to constantly play the role of state symbol in a proactive manner.

Concerning Japan’s polity, there is a strange magnetic field that pursues authoritarian rule and an absolute monarchy — one example of this manifestation being the LDP’s draft revision of the Constitution. To protect the normal constitutional monarchy against such a force, the monarch himself bears the burden of having to take on a certain sense of political value.

Now that the Diet balance of power makes it possible for the legislature to initiate an amendment — and given that members of the government and ruling parties have a strong will to pursue that goal, even the people who do not see the need the change the Constitution will have no choice but to join the constitutional discussions.

The prospective agenda for amendments proposed by the ruling coalition, such as creating a provision for giving the government emergency powers in a crisis, are only an excuse designed to set a precedent of constitutional amendment. All of this agenda can be dealt with without revising the Constitution.

A full-scale debate on the Constitution needs to begin with a discussion on the significance of Japan’s wartime defeat and the postwar reforms, and involve historical and philosophical explorations on the nation’s postwar path. The issue raised by the Emperor at this time may serve as a trigger for launching such constitutional discussions.

What is the essence of the state of Japan that is symbolized by the Emperor? We can start the discussions from Chapter 1 of the Constitution. Through such a discussion, we will inevitably turn our eyes to the historical context that preserved the Imperial system in postwar Japan, which will require us to deepen our understanding of why “Chapter 1. The Emperor” and “Chapter II. Renunciation of War” are placed at the outset of the Constitution. We must not ignore the historical circumstances in which continued existence of the Imperial system was approved by the international community because of Japan’s commitment to being a pacifist nation.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University in Tokyo.

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