Constitutions are called the backbones of countries. The postwar Constitution of Japan, which came into force 72 years ago, has survived into the new Reiwa era without being amended because it is basically well written.
However, the fact that the supreme law has survived over such a long period without revisions does not necessarily mean that the government is running the country in a wholesome way.
What is more important is the reality of the country. The Diet, in which representatives of the people gather, should constantly discuss the Constitution and brush up its values.
Six and a half years have passed since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power in late 2012. Abe, who is the most enthusiastic about amending the postwar Constitution of all successive prime ministers, has endeavored to expand pro-constitutional reform forces in the legislature and scored certain victories in Diet elections. Nevertheless, discussions at the commissions on the Constitution in both houses of the Diet remain stalled.
There is no denying that one of the reasons for the stagnation is that key opposition parties have adopted stubborn attitudes toward constitutional revision. However, the essential reason is that Abe has made light of the process of discussions on the issue.
In a video message released at a rally of a pro-constitutional reform organization just two years ago, Abe declared that the existence of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) should be written into war-renouncing Article 9 of the supreme law. Moreover, the premier set the deadline for the enforcement of a revised Constitution as by 2020 — when Japan will host the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
These proposals had not been sufficiently discussed within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that Abe leads. In response to questions from an opposition party legislator who asked him about his true intentions behind these proposals, the prime minister asked the lawmaker to read a Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper issue that carried an interview with the premier.
Once he was re-elected to his third term as LDP president in autumn 2018, Abe appointed close aides to him to key posts in the Diet and the party closely related to constitutional issues, while excluding those in favor of cooperating with opposition parties from such positions.
At a party convention this past February, Prime Minister Abe went as far as to say that local governments are uncooperative in the SDF’s recruitment of people because the Constitution does not stipulate the existence of the SDF.
His proposal to discuss how the SDF should be defined by the Constitution is not wrong. However, Japan’s security policy is based on a combination of Article 9 of the supreme law and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. The issue should not be trivialized to the sentimental argument that SDF personnel can have pride if the SDF is written into Article 9.
Rightist forces’ insistence that revisions to Article 9 would increase Japan’s deterrence is tantamount to saying that the brakes could be put on the ongoing population decline if countermeasures against the declining birthrate were written into the Constitution.
Therefore, a review of Article 9 should be discussed along with reform of the Japan-U.S. security arrangement and revisions to the bilateral status-of-forces agreement. As long as such a process is avoided, the government cannot overcome the contradiction of aiming to break away from the postwar regime while forcing the harsh postwar regime, namely the concentration of U.S. bases, on the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa.
The issue relating to the Constitution that urgently needs to be addressed is an extreme decline in the Diet’s functions — particularly the legislature’s lack of control over the prime minister’s authority — rather than Article 9.
In a parliamentary system, the Diet is a source of all political power. Forces that have a majority in the legislature elect the prime minister and that individual forms a Cabinet and exercises their administrative power.
However, Abe’s predominance has been prolonged and his Cabinet hardly shows any respect to the Diet, which is its “parent.” Far from it, there are occasions in which the Cabinet gives various instructions to the legislative branch.
In a regular Diet session in 2018, it came to light that Finance Ministry bureaucrats doctored documents on the heavily discounted sale of state-owned land to Moritomo Gakuen, an Osaka-based school operator that had been linked to Abe’s wife Akie. It was an unprecedented incident in which the executive branch deceived the legislative branch. Nevertheless, the Diet failed to get to the bottom of the incident. The prime minister even stopped short of dismissing Finance Minister Taro Aso over the falsification scandal.
The most important role of the Diet is to create laws as rules governing society. Since legislation affects many people’s interests, whether bills are appropriate must be carefully scrutinized from various viewpoints. Accurate information is necessary for such efforts.
However, a government-sponsored bill to amend the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act to expand the acceptance of foreign workers left detailed rules on the new immigration system to Justice Ministry orders. The bill highlights the executive branch’s disrespect for the legislative branch.
The basic philosophy behind the Constitution is ensuring “checks and balances” between three branches of government by guaranteeing their independence. Constitutional order can be secured only if the legislative branch exerts necessary control over the executive branch.
The prime minister’s power was drastically expanded as a result of political reforms carried out throughout the previous Heisei era, while the Diet’s function of supervising the administrative branch remains weak. It is obvious that this is a structural problem involving Japan’s national politics.
If the political goal in the Heisei era was to strengthen the authority of the prime minister’s office, then the new Reiwa era should be about reviving the Diet’s functions. The Diet could change simply by adding the duty to give due consideration to opposition parties to requirements for invoking the Diet’s administration investigation right.
Restoring the balance between the legislative and executive branches of government is the easiest way to ensure constructive debate on the Constitution.