Amending the Constitution

Prime Minister Abe’s Drive to Amend the Constitution: Can He Overcome the Hurdles?


Prime Minister Abe is aiming to amend the Constitution of Japan by 2020. But support for his administration has declined sharply, and if he insists on pushing ahead with the amendment process according to his intended schedule, he runs the risk of failing both at revising the Constitution and at holding on to power.

On August 3, at a press conference following his cabinet reshuffle, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō declared that he had “no specific timeframe in mind” for revision of the Constitution. This was a departure from his previously expressed stance on the subject.

On previous occasions Abe has spoken in quite concrete terms about the contents and timing of the constitutional revision process that he hopes to advance. For example, in remarks delivered on May 3, Constitution Memorial Day, this year, he set forth his proposal for revision of Article 9, under which Japan renounces war and the possession of war-waging potential; he would maintain the present provisions of the article as they stand but supplement them with an explicit reference to the existence of the Self-Defense Forces.(*1) And at that time he set 2020 as the target for implementation of a revised Constitution. Then, on July 9, during the course of a trip to Europe, Abe expressed his intention of having the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which he heads, submit a draft of its proposed constitutional amendments to the National Diet before the end of its extraordinary session this autumn.

Following the prime minister’s August 3 statement, however, it is no longer clear if the LDP will in fact submit its draft to the Diet this autumn. Clearly the prime minister’s backtracking from his previous position reflects the sharp drop in support for his administration due to the emergence of alleged improprieties, notably the Kake Gakuen (Kake Educational Institution) affair, in which a university headed by a long-time friend of the prime minister received favorable consideration of its bid to set up a department of veterinary medicine, along with the suspected covering up by the Ministry of Defense of a report on the activities of the Japanese peacekeeping unit in South Sudan. In polls by the daily Yomiuri Shimbun, support for the Abe administration plunged from 61% in May to 49% in June and 36% in July, while opposition jumped from 28% in May to 52% in July.

On July 2 the LDP suffered a historic drubbing in the elections for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, a contest that is considered a key indicator of the future course of national politics. At this juncture, additional deliberations aimed at amendment of the Constitution, to which there is a strong current of public resistance, are liable to further sap the already low level of support for Abe’s administration.

Ever since the start of his current term as prime minister in December 2012, Abe has been actively pushing for revision of the Constitution. In this article I will review the ideas that he and his party have advanced in this connection and consider the prospects for future developments.

The Amendment Process

Amending the Constitution requires (1) “initiation” of the amendment by the Diet, which entails approval by two-thirds majorities in both houses, and (2) ratification by the people, which requires approval by a majority of voters in a national referendum. Here let me explain the details of the process.

The first step is the submission of a draft amendment to the 475-seat House of Representatives (lower house) with the support of at least 100 members of that chamber or to the 272-seat House of Councillors (upper house) with the support of at least 50 members. The draft is sent to the Deliberative Council on the Constitution of the chamber where it was submitted. If approved by this council, the draft is next submitted to a plenary sitting of the chamber in question. If two-thirds of the chamber’s total membership approves it, it is sent to the other chamber, where the same process is repeated. If the draft is similarly approved by that chamber’s Deliberative Council on the Constitution and then by two-thirds of that chamber’s total membership, it is deemed to have been initiated by the Diet. The final step is a national referendum; if approved by a majority of those voting, the amendment goes into effect.

Under the Diet Law it is provided that constitutional amendments shall be proposed “separately for each relevant matter” (Article 68-III). This presents a barrier to an overall revision of the Constitution in a single stroke; it appears that amendments must be initiated by the Diet separately for each provision or set of provisions to be revised and that each such amendment must be ratified by voters in a national referendum.

The LDP’s Advocacy of an “Autonomous” Constitution

In recent years it is the LDP that has been calling for discussion of amendments to the Constitution. In fact the party has advocated the adoption of an “autonomous” Constitution as one of its objectives ever since its establishment in 1955. (The present Constitution was adopted in 1947, when Japan was under occupation by the Allied Powers following its defeat in World War II; for this reason some consider it not to be an autonomous charter.) In 2000 the LDP reaffirmed this as a fundamental principle, committing itself to the adoption of “a Constitution for the people suited to the twenty-first century.” And in October 2005, when it observed the fiftieth anniversary of its foundation, the party came out with a draft of its proposed version.

In April 2007, during Abe’s first term as prime minister, the ruling coalition secured passage of a law specifying the procedures for conducting a national referendum on amendment of the Constitution.

The LDP lost power in September 2009, but while in the opposition it prepared a new draft of its proposed revisions, which it published in April 2012, on the sixtieth anniversary of the coming into effect of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which ended the post–World War II Allied occupation of Japan and restored the country’s independence. The LDP draft included a provision declaring that all of the people of the nation “shall be respected as people”—a subtle revision of the present provision that they “shall be respected as individuals” (Article 13)—and added an explicit provision that the country shall possess a national military defense force.

In December 2012 the LDP was victorious in the general election for the lower house and resumed control of the government, with Abe becoming prime minister for the second time. Abe is a strong advocate of constitutional revision, and early in his second term he indicated his desire to relax the requirements for initiating amendments in the Diet as currently set forth in Article 96.(*2) But he encountered resistance not just from the opposition but also from the Kōmeitō, the LDP’s partner in the ruling coalition, and in more recent years he has not referred much to this idea.

In the campaign for the general election that Abe called in December 2014, the LDP pledged that it would submit a set of proposals for revision of the Constitution to the Diet. Abe and the LDP subsequently called for the addition of a clause on the handling of emergency situations, such as major disasters.

Meanwhile, however, there had not been any progress in the deliberations of the two chambers’ Deliberative Councils on the Constitution, which had started in March 2013. In November 2014, an open discussion was held in the lower house council, with the various parties expressing their views on the issues to be considered in connection with revision of the Constitution and on the manner in which the revision process should progress. And in May 2015 a debate was conducted on high-priority issues. But in June that year, constitutional scholars invited to speak to the lower house council expressed the view that the national security legislation proposed by the government, which was then under deliberation, was unconstitutional. At this point attention shifted to the issue of collective self-defense, the focal point of the debate on the government’s proposed legislation.

Council deliberations resumed in November 2016, and a number of topics were discussed starting this January, including voting rights, the handling of emergencies, the relationship between the national and local governments, and matters relating to the emperor. The upper house council devoted considerable attention to the shape of the bicameral system.

It was in this context that Prime Minister Abe this May called for the revision of Article 9 to include an explicit reference to the existence of the Self-Defense Forces. Up to now the government has taken the view that the SDF are not “military forces,” which Japan has renounced in the second paragraph of Article 9.  The prime minister probably believes that, given this long-standing interpretation, the addition of such an explicit reference should not be a major problem.

The Kōmeitō Becomes More Wary

What are the stances of the parties other than the LDP on revision of the Constitution?

The Kōmeitō, the second party in the ruling coalition, advocates what it calls kaken, or “adding to the Constitution.” This means maintaining the existing content of the present Constitution but supplementing it with additional provisions as required. Recently this party has been taking a more cautious posture regarding the prime minister’s proposed revisions. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, the top opposition force, accepts the idea that constitutional revisions should be considered, but it has taken a negative stance toward the timetable Abe proposed. This reflects the fact that party members hold diverging views on amending the Constitution.

Nihon Ishin no Kai actively supports revision of the Constitution, and in March 2016 this party’s predecessor organization, Osaka Ishin no Kai, released a draft of its proposed changes, including the provision of tuition-free education and the establishment of a Constitutional Court. The party has indicated its favorable assessment of Prime Minister Abe’s proposals.

Meanwhile the Japanese Communist Party and Social Democratic Party oppose amendment of the Constitution, as they always have.

How does the prime minister intend to advance deliberations on this issue henceforth? One key consideration is the makeup of the two houses of the Diet. Currently the LDP and other forces in favor of amending the Constitution hold over two-thirds of the seats in both houses, the margin required for Diet approval of constitutional amendments. But this favorable balance can only be counted on to continue until the next general election, which must be held no later than December 2018.

The chances of winning Diet approval for amendments to the Constitution by that time are high. When the prime minister said in July that he would aim to have the LDP submit its proposed revisions to the Diet this autumn, he was probably thinking of a timetable like this: (1) presentation of the LDP’s draft to the extraordinary session of the Diet this autumn, (2) completion of consideration by the Deliberative Councils on the Constitution of the two houses and approval by the Diet during either the ordinary Diet session in the first half of 2018 or an extraordinary session in the autumn of the year, and (3) the holding of a national referendum on the amendments simultaneous with a general election for the lower house.

There are, however, three hurdles that could stand in the way of progress in deliberations on the revision of the Constitution.

How Speedily Will the Deliberative Councils Proceed?

The first hurdle is the uncertainty about whether Abe will be able to get the LDP and the deliberative councils of the two houses to conduct their debates in a timely manner.

Up to now Abe has had the cabinet—in other words, the executive branch of the government—prepare legislative proposals for implementation of his policy priorities. When the cabinet puts together policy proposals and drafts bills for submission to the Diet, the prime minister, as the head of the government, can give directions to cabinet ministers and to the bureaucrats actually preparing the documents. The LDP examines the proposed legislation before it is submitted to the Diet, but it does this vetting only after the cabinet has finished the drafting process.

Revising the Constitution will involve a different process: The proposed revisions will be drafted by the LDP’s Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution, with Abe giving directions in his capacity as president of the party. LDP Diet members will presumably participate in the deliberations of this headquarters, so ultimately the decision-making procedure is likely to be similar to the procedure by which the LDP examines cabinet-drafted legislation.

As prime minister, Abe wields strong authority within the government, including the power to dismiss cabinet ministers and to make personnel decisions regarding senior bureaucrats. These powers allow him to control the course of policymaking by the cabinet. But in the case of constitutional amendments, he acts as president of the LDP, relying on support from other LDP legislators who are close to him and from the party’s employees, and there is no guarantee that he will be able to exercise the same sort of strong leadership that he can bring to bear on cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats.

It is also questionable whether Abe will be able to find a sufficient supply of human resources to conduct the necessary work within the party. When the cabinet sends draft legislation to the LDP for examination prior to submission to the Diet, bureaucrats normally smooth the process with preparatory legwork, explaining the contents to key party members and winning their agreement. But it is not clear that it will be possible to conduct this sort of legwork in connection with the constitutional amendments that Abe wants to have the party submit to the Diet.

Also, within the Diet, the authority to decide on the schedule for discussion of amendments within the two houses’ Deliberative Councils on the Constitution rests with the councils’ respective chairpersons and directors. If the chairpersons and directors from the ruling coalition move cautiously, giving consideration to the wishes of the opposition, it may not be possible to keep to the sort of schedule that Abe has in mind.

Of course, Abe can be expected to see to it that the chairpersons’ and directors’ posts are held by like-minded LDP members, and he can exert influence as required in his position as party president. But he does not hold the authority to decide on the actual pace of discussions in the two councils.

Public Opposition to Abe’s Timetable

The second hurdle that could stand in the way of progress toward revision of the Constitution is public opinion. As noted above, support for the Abe administration has already plunged as a result of the Kake Gakuen affair and the Ministry of Defense cover-up issue.

In an Asahi Shimbun poll conducted early in July, only 35% expressed a favorable opinion of his idea of having the LDP submit a proposal to the Diet this autumn, with 49% expressing a negative view. And a poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun, whose readers are thought to include a relatively high share of LDP supporters, produced similar results: 37% in favor and 48% opposed.

If the LDP pushes forward with deliberations aimed at revising the Constitution, public support for Abe’s administration may decline further. And such a decline could have an impact on LDP legislators, causing the deliberations within the party to stall.

Revising the Constitution vs. Holding on to Power

The third hurdle in the way of amending the Constitution is the potential impact on Abe’s ability to dissolve the House of Representatives and call a general election. If the lower house were dissolved with support for the administration running at its current low level, it is hard to imagine that the ruling coalition would be able to hold on to its two-thirds majority. So if the prime minister continues to seek Diet approval for amendments to the Constitution—which must be approved by a two-thirds margin in both houses—he will not be able to call a general election. There is nothing to legally prevent him from calling an election after securing Diet approval for constitutional amendments, but in order to maintain the legitimacy of the Diet’s action, it would be undesirable to hold a general election before conducting a referendum on the amendments.

In other words, if Abe tries to get the Constitution amended, it will be hard for him to call a general election anytime in the near future. And if for this reason he puts off holding an election for the time being, he may end up having to call one at an unfavorable juncture, jeopardizing the ruling coalition’s hold on power. If support for the administration continues to run at a low level, Abe will be forced to choose between holding on to power and revising the Constitution. And if he chooses the latter, he runs the risk of losing on both fronts.

As noted above, public support for the Abe administration has dipped sharply. It recovered slightly after Abe reshuffled his cabinet early in August, but those who support the administration, at 42%, are still outnumbered by the 48% who do not.

The prime minister’s ability to move toward amending the Constitution according to his own scenario will depend on his ability to win back popular support for his administration. He has identified implementing a “human resources development revolution” as a key priority he wishes to pursue after the reshuffling of his cabinet. The administration’s ability to achieve results that appeal to the public will have a major bearing on the future course of moves to revise the Constitution.

(Originally published in Japanese on September 7, 2017. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe delivers a video message to a forum of supporters of constitutional revision held in Tokyo on May 3, Constitution Memorial Day, 2017. © Jiji.)

“In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, 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 recognized.”

“Amendments when so ratified shall immediately be promulgated by the Emperor in the name of the people, as an integral part of this Constitution.”

(*1) ^ Article 9 currently consists of the following two paragraphs:
“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.

(*2) ^ Article 96 currently consists of the following two paragraphs:
“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.