Japan marked the 69th anniversary of its Constitution on Tuesday, with a turning point possibly approaching as the upper house election in the summer will prove critical to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of amending it.
Abe has pushed for constitutional changes, including a controversial revision to the war-renouncing Article 9, saying that the current supreme law is a product of the U.S.-led occupation following the end of World War II in 1945 and that it is outdated in some areas. The Constitution was promulgated on Nov 3, 1946, and put into effect on May 3, 1947.
While the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition ally Komeito together hold a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives, another overwhelming victory for them in the House of Councillors election would be a key step toward a first-ever postwar constitutional revision.
A constitutional amendment must be proposed by the Diet with the backing of two-thirds of the members in each house of parliament and a majority of the Japanese people must approve it in a referendum. The conditions have never been met, leaving the supreme law as it is.
As winning a two-thirds majority in the upper house is a high hurdle to achieve by the LDP alone, the party hopes to seek cooperation not only from Komeito but also from some opposition parties in crafting an amendment proposal.
This means that the LDP will likely keep its arguments vague during campaigning for the upper house election to leave room for later discussions on the issue with other parties, a senior LDP official has indicated.
The LDP is also drawing up a strategy to work on revisions in stages, likely starting from changes deemed less controversial and then moving on to its ultimate goal of rewriting Article 9.
Revisions to begin with may include adding a clause conferring strong powers to the prime minister in emergency situations such as large-scale natural disasters and armed attacks against Japan by other countries, or creating a clause stipulating people’s right to enjoy a favorable natural environment.
But even if pro-reform Diet members reach two-thirds in both houses, the prospects of attaining any amendments are still unclear as parties differ in their focuses.
For example, Komeito is supportive of “adding” new ideas and clauses to the Constitution without changing its current basic principles, such as the respect for fundamental human rights.
The party also wants to keep the content of Article 9, which stipulates that Japan forever renounces war and bans the country from maintaining armed forces. But it is open to discussions, although cautiously, on stating the existence of the country’s Self-Defense Forces in the article.
The Initiatives from Osaka, an opposition party established last year by former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, could possibly partner with the LDP on constitutional amendment. It focuses on revisions such as launching an administrative system that gives more leeway to regional autonomy and offering free education from early childhood to university.
The main opposition Democratic Party has vowed to oppose any Article 9 amendment proposal by Abe’s government, while the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party are staunch supporters of the Constitution and have turned up the heat on Abe especially over new security laws that they believe have eroded Japan’s postwar pacifism.
Even if the LDP succeeds in the initial constitutional revision, the next step—rewriting Article 9—will be certain to be more challenging, with the majority of the public opposed to any change, according to opinion polls.
The LDP has said it has no intention of changing the pacifist ideals embedded in the Constitution.
But it is eager to remove an Article 9 clause banning Japan from possessing military forces and wants to clarify that the war-renouncing provision does not restrict the country from defending itself, including exercising the right to collective self-defense, which involves using force to support an ally under attack even if Japan itself is not attacked.
Before Abe returned to power in 2012, previous governments maintained the view that Japan has that right under international law, but cannot exercise it due to Article 9, which also bans the use of force to settle international disputes.
But Abe’s government decided to reinterpret Article 9 to enable Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense in a limited way and expanded the role of the SDF overseas under new security laws that took effect in March.
The issue has triggered a wave of protests among youths and other people who fear such legislation could lead Japan to become embroiled in war again. Moves to expand the SDF’s role have been largely contentious in the country, with its militaristic past still a source of friction with neighboring countries.