Editorial Notes

Strategic approach crucial when reviewing Japan's Constitution: The Yomiuri Shimbun

In its editorial on May 3, the paper outlines some of the main issues that will need to be addressed when reviewing Japan's current Constitution.

People look at the original and copies of the Japanese Constitution during an exhibition to commemorate its 70th anniversary, at the National Archives of Japan in Tokyo on May 2, 2017.
People look at the original and copies of the Japanese Constitution during an exhibition to commemorate its 70th anniversary, at the National Archives of Japan in Tokyo on May 2, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Constitution's enforcement.

The Constitution, which upholds the three principles of popular sovereignty, pacifism and fundamental human rights, has been widely endorsed by the people and thus taken root in society.

However, in light of the massive changes in foreign and domestic affairs, the fact that there has been no revision of the Constitution has certainly led to various distortions and deviations from the actual state of affairs.

The enactment of security-related laws by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was an attempt to correct inconsistencies within the framework of the current Constitution. But it can hardly be said that such an effort is sufficient, considering the worsening international situation surrounding Japan.

The ruling and opposition parties are responsible for sincerely and seriously undertaking the important task of steadily reviewing the nation's top law to create a document that can properly deal with the wide-ranging challenges of a new era.

In an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, Abe expressed willingness to realise the revision and enforcement of the Constitution by 2020, saying, "I'd like 2020 to be the year when a new constitution comes into force."

Political forces in favour of revising the Constitution have exceeded two-thirds in both chambers of the Diet, the threshold for initiating constitutional amendments, but we cannot help but say deliberations at commissions on the Constitution in both houses of the Diet are stagnant. It is laudable that the prime minister himself moved to spur debate on constitutional revision by boldly specifying the target year for revision of the Constitution.

Abe cited Article 9 as a specific item for revision, emphasising, "It is imperative to alter the situation in which the Self-Defence Forces are dismissed as unconstitutional in my generation."

He also referred to a proposal to add a provision defining the legal grounds for the SDF while maintaining Paragraph 1 and 2 of Article 9, which stipulate, among other things, the renunciation of war. Abe said that he, as president of the Liberal Democratic Party, will call on the party to expedite compilation of concrete proposals.

Indeed, it is extremely hard to make sense of the government's current interpretation that the SDF does not contravene the Constitution because it is neither a military force nor represents war capabilities. Many constitutional scholars arbitrarily define the SDF as "unconstitutional." The prime minister's awareness of the urgent need to dissolve such an extraordinary situation as early as possible is understandable.

Recently, North Korea has repeatedly committed provocative military acts in tandem with its nuclear and missile development, and China has been persistently pursuing self-righteous maritime advances and military buildup. These circumstances make defining the SDF in the Constitution a great necessity.

Emphasising this point in revising Article 9 can be viewed as an effort to show consideration for the opinions of Komeito and the Democratic Party, thereby seeking to initiate constitutional amendment with the support of more political parties. Komeito has insisted on kaken - adding new items to the Constitution - while the DP remains cautious about revision.

Constitutional amendment requires a majority of votes to be cast in favour of amendment in a national referendum. Given this high hurdle, there is good reason to place priority on forming a broadly based consensus. If constitutional amendment efforts fail in the first-ever national referendum, the prospects for revising the Constitution afterward will fade away for many years.

In proposing a revision of Article 96 to relax amendment requirements in 2013, the prime minister was condemned as trying to revise that provision first, as a prelude to the main part of amendment. This caused him to seal off that proposal.

Article 9 is the most essential clause to be covered by amendment efforts. Revising the article is a serious issue that could divide public opinion. The Liberal Democratic Party must grapple with the issue from a strategic point of view, by carefully exchanging opinions with the DP based on the results of discussions at commissions on the Constitution in both chambers of the Diet.

The prime minister has also expressed a positive view about the idea of utilising constitutional amendment to realise free education. "Higher education must be made truly open to all members of the public," Abe said.

His assertion can be seen as an attempt to facilitate closer cooperation with Nippon Ishin no Kai, an opposition party that has cited free education as one of three main pillars of its constitutional amendment efforts.

However, if the free education scheme covers not only primary and junior high schools - both of which constitute compulsory education - but also kindergartens, day nurseries, senior high schools, colleges and universities, it is expected to require financial resources in excess of ¥4 trillion (S$50 billion) annually. The implementation of casual measures that would have the next generation pick up the tab for boosting revenues, such as the issuance of government bonds, should never be allowed.

It is necessary to pay careful consideration to pertinent matters, including an alternative proposal to expand scholarships that involve limits on the income earned by the parents of recipients.

Another important issue to be discussed in this respect is the establishment of a state-of-emergency clause applicable in times of large-scale disasters.

One idea is to make it possible to extend the term of Diet members if a disaster causes damage so serious that a national election cannot be held. Many lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition parties have expressed a favourable opinion about such an exceptional measure.

The constitutions established in many countries entail provisions aimed at temporarily granting their prime ministers greater authority to more effectively rescue and support disaster victims. It is essential to earnestly consider measures aimed at managing crises in such a highly disaster-prone nation as Japan.

Amid the continued population decrease in provincial areas, it is also necessary to seriously debate the pros and cons of integrating constituencies for upper house elections.

There is a strong sense of urgency among people in regional areas about the possible difficulty of having their voices heard in national politics. One idea for eliminating integrated constituencies is to introduce a system by which at least one upper house member would be elected from every prefecture, based on the idea of treating legislators in that chamber as representing their respective regions.

It is indispensable to promote fundamental discussions on relevant issues, including what kind of roles should be assumed by the lower and upper houses. Although representatives from parliamentary blocs in the upper chamber are currently discussing election system reforms for their house, it may be advisable to establish a new venue for debates that include academics and specialists.

The Yomiuri Shimbun is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 news media entities.