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Road Ahead for Amending the Constitution
[2013.08.06] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | ESPAÑOL |

Article 96 of Japan’s Constitution requires a two-thirds Diet majority for any constitutional amendment. Faced with this hurdle, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and his Liberal Democratic Party have suggested revising the article to pave the way for amendments. In the following, we look at the procedures for constitutional reform.

Legislation to Make Amendment Possible

In 2007, both houses of the Diet approved the Act on Procedures for Amendment of the Constitution of Japan, effective on May 14 of that year. The act was fully enforced three years later, on May 18, 2010. But in fact it has taken a total of around 11 years for the concerted effort to lay out the amendment procedures to reach its fruition, starting back in July 29, 1999, when the Law for Partial Amendments to the Constitution was passed in order to set up an Investigative Committee on the Constitution for both houses of the Diet.

Three Conditions for the Act on Procedures for Amendment

Now that the Act on Procedures for Amendment has come into effect, it is possible for a constitutional amendment to be proposed to the people as long as it is approved by at least 100 members of the House of Representatives and at least 50 members of the House of Councillors. However, three important conditions apply.

First of all, the voting age must be reduced from 20 to 18 years of age. Incidentally, in the United States the voting age was reduced to 18 through an amendment passed in 1971.  In France and Italy the age to participate in a national referendum is 18, while in South Korea it is 19.

The second condition is to lift the current ban placed on civil servants from engaging in political activities. And the third condition is the expansion of referendums to include other policy issues. 

These conditions are currently being discussed by the Deliberative Council on the Constitution in the lower and the upper house. The first two issues in particular are ones that have been addressed before the Act on Procedures for Amendment came into effect, but there is still little prospect for their resolution. 

The Effort to Amend Article 96

Even if these conditions for constitutional amendment are worked out, what still remains is the fact that, under Article 96 of the Constitution, an amendment must be approved by a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet. Faced with this hurdle, some have been calling for Article 96 to be amended.

Article 96 states, “Amendments to this Constitution shall be initiated by the Diet, through a concurring vote of two-thirds or more of all the members of each House and shall thereupon be submitted to the people for ratification, which shall require the affirmative vote of a majority of all votes cast thereon, at a special referendum or at such election as the Diet shall specify.”

In his policy speech to the Diet on February 28, 2013, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō made the first step toward revising Article 96 by stating, “Let us promote the discussions of the Deliberative Council on the Constitution [in each chamber of the Diet] and engage in deeper discussion with a view to revising the Constitution.” In response to this call, the multiparty coalition Sōsei Nippon on March 5 added to its program an item titled “Bolstering Trends Toward Amending the Constitution.” In addition, the 120 members of the coalition and other noncoalition LDP members relaunched the League for Amending Article 96 of the Constitution on March 7. Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, Japan Restoration Party, and Your Party convened their first joint study session on the topic of Article 96 on March 15. 

Revising Article 96 Is No Easy Task

The LDP draft proposal to amend the Constitution calls for Article 96 to be revised so that that a constitutional amendment can be approved by a majority of both houses of the Diet and then submitted to the public, as opposed to the current requirement for approval by two-thirds of both houses. Moreover, whereas the current Constitution requires an “affirmative vote of a majority of all votes cast” in the special referendum to approve an amendment, the LDP proposal only requires approval by a “majority of the valid ballots.”

The path ahead for the LDP is not easy, however. Its political ally, the New Kōmeitō, takes a dim view of constitutional changes that start with revising Article 96, adhering instead to its position of “strengthening the Constitution” (kaken). On top of this, various opinion polls show that there is low public support for that revision. This has meant that even within the LDP, some are calling for a cautious approach, saying that the debate on altering the requirements for constitutional reform has not yet progressed far enough. 

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