Japanese warm to idea of revising Constitution amid Covid-19 pandemic

The idea of war remains uncomfortable to many Japanese.
The idea of war remains uncomfortable to many Japanese.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - The Covid-19 pandemic may have given new wind to a bid by Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to revise the Constitution, and several media surveys show that the public is growing warmer to the idea of amending the supreme law.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has been far less strident than his predecessor, Mr Shinzo Abe, in championing changes to the law. But he said on Monday (May 3) at a forum to mark Constitution Memorial Day that the government must be enabled with powers to act in emergencies like natural disasters and pandemics.

The pacifist top law, drafted by the United States, came into force 74 years ago on May 3, 1947.

Mr Suga, noting that the law now does not include an "emergency clause", said: "More than 70 years have passed since the current Constitution was enacted, and we should revise those parts that are unsuitable or inadequate for the times."

He said that Japan's experience with Covid-19 has shown that it was "extremely serious and important" to discuss such a clause to allow the Cabinet to temporarily limit the freedoms of people in a major disaster or pandemic.

Japan is now in the midst of its fourth Covid-19 wave, with the number of patients in serious condition climbing to a new high of 1,084 on Monday.

Still, domestic media have cited LDP insiders as saying that Mr Suga has been far less enthusiastic in investing political capital to the controversial cause, distracted by Covid-19 and the Olympics in a pivotal election year. Talks in the party over changes to the law have all but stalled since he took over from Mr Abe last September.

Mr Abe failed to meet his own target of changing the Constitution by last year. Doing so would need the approval of two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers of Japan's bicameral legislature, and a simple majority in a public referendum. The process has not been put to a Diet vote.

Mr Suga admitted last month that constitutional revision was "not such an easy task". At the annual LDP convention in March, he did not discuss the matter in as much detail as Mr Abe typically did.

The idea of war remains uncomfortable to many Japanese, who have associated revisions to the top law to tweaking the pacifist Article 9.

The Article now states: "Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes."

It adds: "Land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognised."

The government argues that the country's Self-Defence Forces is stuck in a constitutional grey zone and needs legitimacy by codifying its mandate into the top law.

This proposed amendment is being packaged with three other changes: the emergency clause, the guarantee of education opportunities for all, and the guarantee of electoral seats for the least populated prefecture.

Media surveys show that opposition to constitutional changes may be softening, though the public remains split.

Polls by the Yomiuri daily and Kyodo News show that nearly six in 10 said the top law should be revised to add an emergency provision, eclipsing the four in 10 who said this was unnecessary.

A survey by the Mainichi newspaper said 48 per cent were in favour of constitutional revision, up 12 percentage points from last year, with 31 per cent against.

But another by NHK suggested public uncertainty: As many as 42 per cent were undecided, with 33 per cent in favour and 20 per cent against.