Commentary / World

A crisis of constitutional politics

by Jiro Yamaguchi

This past May 3 saw active public discussions surrounding the Constitution since the day marked the 70th anniversary of the postwar Constitution taking effect in 1947. In particular, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposal for amending Article 9 to clarify the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces — and his expression of hope to get the amendment implemented in 2020 — put the public discourse on the nation’s supreme code into a new phase.

In the first place, a constitution is a set of rules that define how the state powers should be exercised. It exists to protect basic human rights and social fairness from arbitrary rule by those in power. In today’s Japan, however, the government itself is trying to tear down that basic principle.

When asked in the Diet what he meant in his video message shown in a pro-amendment event on May 3, the prime minister told the lawmaker who questioned him to instead read an interview he gave to the Yomiuri Shimbun daily. That was the most outrageous statement made in the history of Japan’s constitutional politics.

Abe said he made the constitutional amendment remark in his capacity as president of the Liberal Democratic Party — and that in Diet deliberations he would only explain his statements and behaviors as prime minister. Such a separation of roles is selfish and unfounded. In a parliamentary democracy, the head of the majority party in parliament is one and the same as the top leader of the government. The two roles are integrated in his or her personality as politician. Politicians must answer if they are asked in the Diet about their political beliefs. Abe’s remarks negate the function of the Diet as the citadel of discourse.

Since February, suspicions have surfaced in Diet discussions that school operators run by people close to Abe or his wife have bought a government-owned tract of land sold at a steep discount or may have been given special favors in opening a new veterinary medicine department. Various documents and testimonies of interested parties have indicated that Japan — supposedly a developed nation — is not immune to the kind of nepotism associated with dictatorships in developing countries.

But a bigger problem is that both politicians and government bureaucrats continue to take insincere attitudes toward those issues — destroying relevant documents and abandoning their duty of accountability. I must say that the rule of law and due process — common sense in a modern state — are not yet fully observed in this country.

In the ongoing Diet session, a government-proposed amendment to the law against organized crime — which makes it punishable to conspire and prepare for a broad range of crimes — is under deliberation. The “conspiracy crime” provision seeks to penalize people for plotting for a crime, even without committing the act. Experts in criminal law have warned against the risk of abuse of such a legal provision by investigation authorities and the possible effects of discouraging civil society activities.

In the course of the Lower House judicial committee deliberations, Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda, who oversees the proposed legislation, often found himself having difficulties answering questions about the bill — and he never properly addressed the doubts about the bill raised by the opposition parties. Joseph Cannataci, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to privacy, sent a letter to Abe raising concern over the legislation from the viewpoint of the protection of human rights. However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga dismissed the criticism as inappropriate and replied with a protest letter. Cannataci calls the protest by the Japanese government mere “angry words with no substance.” Suga’s response effectively amounts to confessing that Japan’s political leaders are far removed from the international common sense regarding the protection of human rights.

In short, a state of barbarism incompatible with modern constitutional principles permeates Japan’s politics today. Abe is not qualified to discuss amending the Constitution under such circumstances. Priority should be placed on bringing Japan back from the rule of man and despotism by the majority to a legitimate constitutional democracy.

Despite all these problems, the Abe administration continues to enjoy strong popular support, with a Kyodo News survey in May putting his Cabinet’s approval rating at 55.4 percent. The biggest reason that people support Abe’s Cabinet (which is cited by 41.8 percent of the respondents who supported him) is that they find no other leaders who are appropriate for the job. Abe appears confident that he will not lose popular support no matter what he does. The more high-handedly he runs his administration, the more opposition forces will lose their presence, and the more other lawmakers in the LDP swear allegiance to the prime minister.

The end result is that people will have even less choice for a leader who can take his place. In order to break such a concentration of power, the opposition camp and the critical media need to rouse the people’s sense of justice by exposing the current problems in politics.

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