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Editorial: Constitutional revision debate must envision Reiwa-era state / Return to cooperative starting point

  • May 3, 2019
  • , The Japan News , 07:31 p.m.
  • English Press

Revising the Constitution, which defines the course of the nation, on their initiative and envisioning the nation’s image in the new era — politicians’ ability to make progress with this move is being called into question.

Today marks the first Constitution Day of the Reiwa era. The Constitution has helped entrench respect for popular sovereignty, pacifism and fundamental human rights and served as the basis for Japan’s postwar development as a peaceful nation.

On the other hand, a divergence has emerged between the Constitution, which has never been amended in its 72 years, and actual society. Japan will be forced to make a big decision on whether to steadfastly maintain the supreme law or revise it to fit the new era.

Turning point

Discussions on constitutional revision, which had long been regarded as taboo, were advanced during the Heisei era. The turning point was the Gulf War in 1991. The government had tried to go ahead with dispatching Self-Defense Forces to contribute international personnel, but Article 9 of the Constitution, which bans the use of force, served as a barrier. Hence, the necessity for constitutional revision came to be recognized.

The collapse of the political order set up in 1955, highlighting the confrontation between conservative and progressive elements, also is said to have fostered momentum for discussing the Constitution freely. Spearheaded by constitutional revision proposals made by The Yomiuri Shimbun in 1994, various proposals were subsequently presented by private organizations.

Following in the wake of such a move, the Commissions on the Constitution were established in both the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors. All political parties took part in discussions at these commissions and compiled reports in five years’ time.

The commissions put together points of contention and directions of revision in regard to not only Article 9, but also other articles of the Constitution, including the division of roles between the lower and upper chambers and addition of new rights such as that of the environment. This signified a certain foundation for embodying proposals on constitutional revision.

Domestic and foreign affairs have been changing significantly thereafter as well. China has been beefing up military forces and North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats have been increasing. As digitization progresses, the state of society has been undergoing a transformation.

The Constitution provides core elements of the state, including people’s rights and duties and the system of governance, and belongs to the people, with whom sovereign power resides. Reexamining the Constitution constantly to ensure it functions adequately without treating it as “the constitution for all time” is the responsibility of the legislature.

Since coming back to power in 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has put constitutional revision on the political agenda. Opposition parties, which have been ramping up criticism of the Abe administration, refrain from participating in discussions on constitutional revision.

Their move of scrapping what had been accumulated while prioritizing partisan interests in bargaining on Diet business is extremely questionable.

Revising Article 9

The research commissions of both Diet chambers and the Commissions on the Constitution that succeeded them were distinct from the political situation and had a tradition of fostering trust between ruling and opposition parties while deepening discussions on the top law.

All parties should return to this starting point and quickly make arrangements to earnestly discuss this matter.

After a constitutional revision has been approved in the Diet, another high hurdle awaits — the revision must gain the approval of a majority of voters in a national referendum. It is important to advance efforts to build a consensus and broaden public support for such a change. The ruling parties must be broad-minded and the opposition parties must show common sense for this to happen.

Of course, Article 9 is at the heart of debates about constitutional amendment. It is understandable that the government aims to wipe away the strong-rooted belief that remains in some parts that the Self-Defense Forces are unconstitutional to clarify the legitimacy of the SDF, which protects the nation’s security and the lives of its people.

Proposed revisions compiled by the Liberal Democratic Party would leave intact Article 9’s Paragraph 2, which stipulates the nation will never maintain “war potential,” and tack on a provision that gives clear legal standing to the SDF. This approach leaves the current wording untouched and is consistent with the government’s interpretation.

The LDP should tenaciously seek the support of not only other political parties, but also the public for its proposal.

The LDP also has proposed establishing an emergency situation clause. This would enable the terms of Diet lawmakers to be extended as a special measure if national elections cannot be held for such reasons as a major disaster.

This can be considered a reasonable step, given that it would enable the nation’s democracy to function properly.

Reform of governance structures, including the Cabinet and Diet, also must not be forgotten.

During Diets in which the opposition parties held a majority in the upper house, the opposition parties rejected bills and personnel appointments subject to Diet approval in the upper house, throwing the national administration into disarray.

It is essential to rectify the balance between the lower house and the “excessively strong upper house,” which wields almost the same authority. At present, if the upper house rejects a bill passed by the lower house, the lower chamber can override this with a two-thirds majority. Lowering this threshold to a simple majority is worthy of consideration.

Reforming government

As well as clearly stipulating the division of roles between the upper and lower chambers, a review of the electoral system in accordance with this will be unavoidable.

Local areas are facing increasingly severe situations, due to reasons including sharp population declines. The functions, authority and other aspects of these local governments should be actively debated.

Germany has amended its Constitution at least 60 times since the end of World War II, and many of those revisions pertain to the governance structure, such as changes to the roles of the federal and state governments. Overseas examples could be models for Japan.

How should the changes of the times be read and responded to? What shows a concrete image is the Constitution.

As this summer’s upper house election approaches, each party must vigorously hold internal discussions and consolidate its position on the main issues of constitutional amendment.

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