Growing debate in Diet on revision of basic law should be put to good use
In the current Diet session under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, discussions about the wisdom of revising the Constitution are unusually animated.
Depending on the outcome of the House of Councillors election this summer, revision of the Constitution, which Abe has committed to including in the upper house election platform, may become more likely.
May 3 is Constitution Day, marking the 67th year since the enforcement of the current supreme law.
Despite drastic changes in the domestic and international environments since it was put into force, the Constitution has never been changed.
We should make this day an opportunity to think about what the Constitution should be.
Ease revision requirements first
Lying at the root of the constitutional debates is the fact that the Japanese have had "no experience at all writing a constitution on their own," as the prime minister has pointed out.
The prewar constitution--the Constitution of the Empire of Japan of 1889--commonly called the Meiji Constitution, was granted by the Emperor. And the current Constitution was produced based on a draft worked out under the Occupation after the end of World War II by the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers.
The idea of the Japanese people themselves discussing fundamentals of the nation and revising the Constitution in a way suited to the changing times is natural and reasonable indeed.
In nationwide opinion surveys conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun, respondents who favor changing the Constitution have consistently outnumbered opponents since the 1993 survey.
The core of constitutional revision, as is widely known, lies in the advisability of changing Article 9.
The stipulation in the second paragraph of the article that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained" has diverged greatly from reality.
To end the fiction that "the self-defense forces are not military forces," the SDF must be given explicit constitutional status.
Article 96 of the Constitution, which sets down requirements regarding amending the supreme law, has also emerged as a major point of contention in discussions about the Constitution.
Not only the Liberal Democratic Party but also such opposition parties as Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and Your Party have made public commitments to revising Article 96. The two opposition parties' commitments are noteworthy as they point toward possible cooperation with the LDP over constitutional revision after the coming upper house election. This opportunity must not be missed.
Article 96 states the Diet can initiate amendments to the Constitution with approval of "two-thirds or more" of all members of both chambers of the legislature and the amendments must thereafter gain approval by a majority of all votes cast in a special referendum.
Given these procedures, Japan's Constitution can be considered much more difficult to revise than the supreme laws of other countries. It seems the GHQ might have thought when drafting the Constitution that it would take a long time for democracy to take root in Japan.
The LDP's draft of constitutional revisions calls for easing the "two-thirds or more" requirement of Article 96 to a simple majority of both houses of the Diet.
The LDP-envisioned revision of the article would make it easier for the Diet to initiate constitutional revision, but there would be no change at all in the subsequent process, in which a final decision on the matter is up to a national referendum.
The major opposition Democratic Party of Japan has been arguing that not procedural matters for amending the Constitution but discussions about which specific parts of the Constitution should be changed must come first.
The LDP and some others, however, have already publicly suggested concrete plans to revise the Constitution.
The DPJ is urged to engage fully in intraparty discussions concerning the advisability of changing the Constitution and come up with a unified party view on the matter.
Roles of Diet chambers
Another urgent task is to review the roles of both Diet houses.
Under the current situation of the "divided Diet," both the ruling and opposition parties must be keenly aware of how much the existence of "an excessively strong upper house" has stagnated national politics.
One possible solution is to revise Paragraph 2 of Article 59. The current paragraph stipulates that a bill passed by the lower house but voted down by the upper house becomes law when passed a second time by the lower house with a majority of "two-thirds or more" of the members present. This should be changed to a simple majority. That would make passage of bills in the lower house on a second vote easier and better clarify the lower house's superiority over the upper house.
We question why the LDP's constitutional revision draft does not refer to this point.
In 2000, a private body of advisers to the upper house president compiled a Diet reform plan that includes relaxation of the conditions for a second vote in the lower house and abolition of the upper house's right to designate a prime ministerial candidate. The reform would require constitutional revision.
The plan, which aims at shrinking the authority of the House of Councillors to reduce its participation in the administration of the national government, is still worth considering.
Concerning electoral system reform to correct the disparity in the value of votes, both chambers' electoral systems should be reviewed simultaneously.
What functions should the upper house and lower house each have? In what way should people's wills be reflected in politics to form a desirable administration? Electoral systems must be reformed from such viewpoints.
This year's Constitution Day comes shortly after a series of high court rulings in lawsuits challenging the disparity in the value of votes in December's House of Representatives election in which the courts ruled the election was "unconstitutional." The Supreme Court will rule on the matter as early as this autumn.
At this critical stage, the Diet, the legislative branch of the nation, must at least pass a lower house rezoning bill designed to cut five seats from the lower house.
Avoid a race to cut seats
The Democratic Party of Japan and other parties are currently competing with their plans to aggressively cut the number of Diet seats, saying "reforms in which the government as well as Diet members share the pain" are necessary. This is nothing but populism disguised as reform.
The number of members in Japan's Diet members is not excessive when compared with other nations based on population. Cuts in personnel costs for Diet members would have only a limited effect in reducing the government's fiscal expenditures. Such an action would rather deteriorate the Diet's legislative functions. If Diet members want to feel pain, it would be better to cut their annual salaries and subsidies to political parties.
Some believe the Constitution should stipulate measures the nation can take in response to emergency situations and the right to a healthy environment for the people. We think these are very important viewpoints.
With the upper house election just around the corner, we hope each party will positively engage in the debate.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 3, 2013)