Will Japan Move to Amend the Constitution?


The ruling coalition’s upper house election victory gives Prime Minister Abe the numbers he needs to initiate a constitutional referendum. Political journalist Takahashi Masamitsu examines the hurdles the administration must clear to achieve a constitutional amendment.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and coalition partner Kōmeitō made solid gains in the July 10 House of Councillors election; together with other conservative-minded members of the upper house, including those belonging to Initiatives from Osaka and Party for Japanese Kokoro, they now have the two-thirds majority (162 seats) required to propose a constitutional amendment. These “pro-amendment” forces already claim a two-thirds supermajority in the House of Representatives, so for the first time in the 71 postwar years, the numerical conditions are in place to initiate the process of revising the Constitution. Prime Minister Abe Shinzō hopes to start deliberating on the specifics during the extraordinary Diet session to be convened in September. Is Japan really about to embark on changing its pacifist Constitution?

A Victory for the Coalition

The 242 members of the upper house serve six-year terms, with half standing for reelection every three years. Of the 121 seats contested in July, 73 were chosen from prefecture-based electoral districts with 1 to 6 seats each (the most recent reforms consolidated Tottori and Shimane into one district, and Tokushima and Kōchi into another). The remaining 48 seats were determined by proportional representation.

The campaign strategy adopted by the LDP-Kōmeitō coalition was to emphasize the economic benefits that Abenomics has brought and to seek a mandate on the continuation of this growth policy.

Four opposition parties—Democratic Party, Japanese Communist Party, Social Democratic Party, and People’s Life Party & Taro Yamamoto and Friends—meanwhile, staged a coordinated, anti-Abe campaign. They criticized the change in the cabinet’s interpretation of the Constitution, which paved the way for the enactment of security legislation enabling the limited exercise of the rights to collective self-defense. The parties also fielded joint candidates in all 32 single-seat constituencies in an attempt to prevent the pro-amendment parties from gaining a supermajority.

The LDP and Kōmeitō both came out of the election with more seats, together getting 70 candidates elected. The opposition, on the whole, did poorly; the DP won only 32 seats, 12 fewer than six years ago (when it was known as the Democratic Party of Japan). Political analysts have pointed to (1) voters’ memories of the party’s incompetence during its three years in power, and (2) an overemphasis on the constitutional-amendment issue and neglect of topics of greater interest to the voting public, such as economic growth, social security, and childcare support. A Democratic Party leadership election is scheduled for September, and President Okada Katsuya has already indicated he will not seek reelection, saying the party needs a fresh face to fight the administration.

A New Interpretation of Article 9

During a news conference the day following the upper house election, Prime Minister Abe criticized Okada’s rejection of any dialogue with the administration on a constitutional amendment as “unconstructive.” Abe expressed a desire to get amendment deliberations off the ground during the special Diet session beginning in September, claiming that what is needed now is for the Commission on the Constitution of both houses of the Diet to discuss which articles should be amended in what ways.

Abe’s grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, was the prime minister responsible for the 1960 revision of the Japan-US Security Treaty that placed the bilateral relationship on a more equal footing, so it may be in his blood to seek an amendment to the Allied-drafted Constitution. Many commentators note that Abe’s ultimate goal is to revise Article 9, which provides that war potential will never be maintained and renounces the use of force as means of settling international disputes.

In fact, Abe has been laying the groundwork for a constitutional amendment since he entered office in September 2006 during his first stint as prime minister. Amendments to the Constitution, according to Article 96, “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.” No rules are spelled out, though, on the procedures the Diet is to follow in initiating the amendment process nor on the methods to be employed in holding a national referendum. The national referendum law stipulating such procedures was thus enacted during Abe’s first term.

That first term ended quite abruptly after only a year as Abe stepped down following the LDP’s setback in the 2007 upper house election, citing poor health. He returned to office in December 2012 and immediately began examining the possibility of easing the conditions for initiating amendment procedures from a two-thirds supermajority in both houses to a simple majority. The initiative made little headway, though, prompting the prime minister to revise the government’s interpretation of Article 9 to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense—albeit in very limited circumstances—resulting in a de facto “amendment” of the war-renouncing clause. This new interpretation served as the basis of the security bills outlining additional roles for the Self-Defense Forces that were enacted in September 2015 amid strong resistance from the opposition.

An Amendment Timetable

The LDP, at the prime minister’s behest, should get to work on drafting an amendment bill during the fall Diet session. The forum for consultations with the opposition parties is likely to be the Commission on the Constitution in both houses of the Diet. To date, meetings of the commission have been little more than platforms for each party to assert their respective positions; the LDP is likely to seek more focused dialogue on specific items to advance the drafting process, identifying problem areas with the existing Constitution and coming up with approaches to redress them.

The next step will be to actually draft an amendment. Senior government officials note that their goal is to identify the items for revision during the special fall session. If this can be completed within the year, work on creating a draft can be launched during the next Diet session to be convened in January. As soon as a draft is completed, it can be submitted to the Diet and, with the approval of a two-thirds majority in both houses, proposed to the public in a national referendum.

According to Japanese law, the Diet is convened each January (for a term of 150 days plus one extension, if any) to deliberate on the budget for the fiscal year beginning in April and other matters. Because budget-related matters take precedence over other bills, non-budget items are usually not discussed until after the start of the new fiscal year. If the opposition voices strong resistance to certain bills, reaching a compromise can become a time-consuming process—often taking as long as two to three months. The security bills submitted during last year’s ordinary Diet session, for example, were stonewalled by the opposition and required a lengthy extension to be enacted.

To deal with the bills that could not be addressed during the ordinary session, special sessions—which may be extended twice—are generally convened in the fall. Given this reality, the earliest path to an amendment would be for a decision to be reached on which provisions to change during the fall and for work on a draft amendment to begin in earnest after April next year. Even if a draft is then submitted during the ordinary session, deliberations will certainly be highly contentious, so calling a Diet vote to propose a national referendum would, at the very least, require a very lengthy extension.

The national referendum law enacted during Abe’s first term stipulates that a plebiscite be held between 60 and 180 days following the Diet proposal, with a “yes” or “no” being asked separately for each revision. This means that a referendum is not likely to be held any sooner than late 2017. If the first two steps of determining what to change and then writing a revised draft are delayed, the timing of the referendum, correspondingly, will also be set back.

Hurdles to an Amendment

A revised draft had already been completed by the LDP in 2012, when it was in the opposition, calling for changes in Article 9 and the establishment of a national defense force in lieu of the SDF. Prime Minister Abe is also ultimately interested in amending the war-renouncing article, but he envisions a two-step process, with other clauses being revised first. He is interested in implementing those changes for which broad agreement can be reached across the political spectrum and then—after convincing the public that an amendment is no big deal—making those constitutional changes that he and his LDP colleagues truly desire. He does not foresee accomplishing both stages during his tenure, though; he is content with phase one, which would still give him a legacy of having achieved the first-ever amendment of the postwar Constitution.

The initial amendment is likely to focus on expanding the authority of the prime minister in the event of a major natural disaster or other emergencies. Another possible revision is to turn the House of Councillors into regional representatives to eliminate the need to ensure vote equality—drawing on the lessons of the unpopular decision to combine prefectural constituencies in depopulated areas. In either case, any attempt to amend the Constitution in today’s political climate is likely to be fiercely resisted; it will not be an easy task.

One reason is that Kōmeitō, is not enthusiastic about making any constitutional changes, so the LDP will have a hard time convincing its junior coalition partner to go along. The party is the political arm of the lay Buddhist organization Sōka Gakkai, and is strongly pacifist. In an effort to differentiate itself from the pro-amendment LDP and such staunchly anti-amendment forces as the Social Democratic Party, it is pursuing a unique strategy of leaving the Constitution’s wording intact but adding new clauses in response to changes in global society. Since the upper house election, it has staked out a guarded position, with party leader Yamaguchi Natsuo asserting that any work on amending the Constitution must have the agreement of the top-opposition Democratic Party.

A second obstacle for Prime Minister Abe is the strongly anti-amendment rhetoric coming from DP leaders. The party fielded joint candidates with the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party in the recent upper house contest, and some of its members are former SDP legislators. At the same time, the conservative wing of the party includes former Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko and former Foreign Minister Maehara Seiji. This range of policy views is making it very difficult for the party to take a clear stance on the amendment issue. The current anti-amendment platform is essentially an expedient to build a common front against the administration.

Under the circumstances, the chances of the DP reaching agreement with the government during the fall session on the items to be revised are exceedingly slim. If the coalition seeks to fashion a broad understanding spanning the ruling-opposition divide, there is no telling how long this will take. The more realistic option for the prime minister would be to persuade Kōmeitō to relinquish its demands that the DP be brought onboard, and to move ahead with the help of pro-amendment opposition parties and independents.

The LDP must be careful, though, not to strong-arm the Kōmeitō into playing along, lest it alienate its important coalition partner. There is little doubt that the DP and its three election allies will emphasize their role as the guardians of the pacifist Constitution in seeking to win over new supporters. Thus if Abe really pushes ahead with the amendment agenda, it is likely to divide the nation, just as the Brexit referendum divided Britain.

When to Dissolve the Lower House

That said, the prime minister does not have all the time in the world. If he spends too much time negotiating with the opposition or Kōmeitō, the current term of the members of the House of Representatives will expire in December 2018.

The decision on when to dissolve the lower house is usually timed to enhance the chances of victory for the government party. If Abe is unable to make headway on the amendment issue, the leeway for dissolution will narrow; he may be forced to dissolve the lower house in the face of plummeting approval ratings, opening the door to an opposition sweep.

If, in prioritizing the party’s stakes, he calls a general election in the midst of amendment procedures, there is no guarantee that the ruling coalition will keep its supermajority. An election setback would force the prime minister to abandon his amendment ambitions.

Abe’s second term as LDP president will expire in September 2018, shortly before the lower house term expires (current LDP rules prohibit a third term, although there are now moves to rewrite those rules). Will Abe advance his amendment agenda in hopes of leaving a lasting legacy, or will he call a snap election timed to optimize his party’s electoral chances, even if he must forego his amendment aspirations? He will need to soon make a decision while closely watching trends in public opinion and the policies adopted by the opposition.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 27, 2016. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe speaks at a news conference at LDP Headquarters on July 11, the day after the upper house election. © Jiji.)

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