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Will Japan Move to Amend the Constitution?

Takahashi Masamitsu [Profile]


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.

  • [2016.08.25]

Deputy managing editor and senior features writer, Jiji Press. Born in 1961. Graduated from the Faculty of Law, Keiō University. Was a reporter in the political news department, covering the LDP’s Obuchi faction, New Frontier Party, and Kōmeitō, and was Jiji’s chief reporter at the press clubs for the Foreign Ministry, LDP, and the Prime Minister’s Office. Became the deputy editor and subsequently chief editor of the political news department and Kobe bureau chief before assuming his current position in 2015.

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