Editorial: The Constitution must not be revised in haste

The Japanese Constitution came into force 72 years ago today. The Constitution serves as the foundation for living our lives in peace and it guarantees freedom and equality for us all. As we enter the new imperial era, Reiwa, such conditions should not change.

Yet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is aggressively seeking to amend the Constitution, aiming to enact these changes in 2020. In March 2018, Mr. Abe, as the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), developed a draft of four revised provisions, which includes stipulations involving the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) in Article 9 of the Constitution. He is angling for a way to propose these revisions to the Diet.

He may make this move swiftly if the ruling coalition of the LDP and the Komeito Party maintain their two-thirds majority in the upcoming Upper House elections this summer. However, debate in the Diet over a constitutional amendment has not moved forward. The commission on the Constitution in both chambers have not discussed the issue in over a year. In mid-April, Koichi Hagiuda, the deputy secretary-general of the LDP who is close to Mr. Abe, criticized the commissions, saying, “We may have to pursue a tougher approach to get things going when the new imperial era, Reiwa, begins.” His imperious attitude makes us doubt whether he really wants a serious debate.

After an apology from the LDP executive regarding his remarks, the commission in the Lower House agreed to resume a substantive debate after May 9. The LDP intends to argue for the revised provisions.

But why are they intent on amending the Constitution now, and particularly these four provisions? This has not been fully explained to the people of Japan. Various views, including the idea of removing the second paragraph of Article 9 of the Constitution, have also come from the ruling party, indicating that thorough discussions have not been made even within the LDP itself. Bringing this matter to the Diet now seems like a hasty move.

In recent years, the prime minister has conveyed his interest in amending the Constitution whenever he gets the chance. He explains the grounds of his argument, but these grounds are weak and not sufficiently persuasive. This includes the comment he made during a meeting of the Lower House Budget Committee in February. Mr. Abe said that 60 percent of local governments are not being cooperative when it comes to recruiting for the Self Defense Forces and that this situation would change if provisions involving the Self-Defense Forces are written into the Constitution. However, his assertion provoked pushback from local governments as 90 percent are actually cooperating with this recruitment.

Do the Japanese people want a constitutional amendment? A survey conducted by Kyodo News in April revealed that 54 percent of respondents were opposed to constitutional revisions under Mr. Abe’s leadership. Opinion polling specifically about Article 9 is divided almost in half, with 47 percent responding that the amendment is “Not needed” while 45 percent said that the amendment is “Needed.”

In spite of such polling results, the government is pushing forward with discussions on revising Article 9 of the Constitution. And Mr. Abe has clearly already made up his mind about revising the Constitution and having this enacted in 2020.

We must not forget that the purpose of the Constitution is to regulate power so there are parameters to its use. It seems that the Abe administration is ignoring the Constitution’s brakes on power.

Three years ago, security-related laws came into force. Although most experts contended that these laws were unconstitutional, the ruling parties pushed them through the Diet through sheer force of their numbers.

In April, the Japanese government decided to send two members of the Ground Self-Defense Force to take part in the Multinational Force now in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, where a flash point of tensions are smoldering. This dispatch is the first case of an “international peace and security cooperation activity” under the security-related laws. Since the enactment of the law, the current administration has moved beyond the “defense-only” policy that successive LDP-led administrations respected.

Two years ago, the opposition parties requested that an extraordinary session of the Diet be convened in line with the Constitution. However, the ruling parties neglected this request for three months. Moreover, they dissolved the Lower House at the opening of the session. Such behavior, which makes light of the Constitution, is nothing less than a challenge against constitutionalism. What we need is for the government to adopt a humble attitude toward observing the Constitution.

There is no need for haste in pursuing discussions on revising the Constitution when public interest for this is low. The prime minister should probe the will of the people more calmly, and reconsider the weight of the Constitution and the role it has played.

(Originally published on May 3, 2019)