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This blog post is part of a series entitled Will the Japanese Change Their Constitution?, in which leading experts discuss the prospects for revising Japan’s postwar constitution.
Natsuo Yamaguchi, president of the Komei party, offers a third essay on Japan’s constitution from the perspective of a national legislator. He has served two terms in Japan’s Lower House (1990-1996); three terms in the Upper House (2001-present); and has led his party since 2009. The Komei Party is affiliated with the populist Buddhist organization, the Sokkai Gakkai, and its members have been strongly pacifist since the party formed in 1964 under the leadership of Daisaku Ikeda. The party split in 1994, with some aligning themselves with the New Frontier Party, but came back together as the New Komeito in 1998. As a member of the ruling coalition from 1999-2009 and again from 2012-present, Komeito has been in a unique position to influence the legislative debate over the interpretation of Japan’s constitution. In responding to my invitation, Representative Yamaguchi agreed to share his personal reflections rather than present the official view of his party.
The Status of Our Constitutional Debate by Natsuo Yamaguchi
May 3rd is constitution day in Japan, and this year was the sixty-ninth anniversary of our current constitution. The Japanese people accepted this constitution while in shock from their nation’s defeat in World War II and the consequent occupation by U.S. forces. This constitution introduced three principles that distinguished the postwar from the Meiji era’s constitutional monarchy: popular sovereignty, respect for fundamental human rights, and the preservation of everlasting peace. These three principles guided our postwar politics, and have permeated the values of our postwar society.
Throughout the postwar, tensions between those who supported our constitution and those who wanted to revise it were pervasive. But two factors changed this: the end of the Cold War and the coalition politics that emerged in Japan since 1993.
International changes [after the Cold War] demanded an expansion of Self Defense Force activities abroad, and our parliament has debated a variety of new legislation that affects their operations. We have debated participation in UN Peacekeeping, greater alliance cooperation with the United States, the conditions for mobilizing our forces in a contingency, and most recently, the new security legislation that allows for limited collective self-defense operations. Our parliamentary debates on Article Nine have exposed the limitations of constitutional interpretation. Moreover, the Japanese people over these years have begun to consider the realistic demands of our defense needs rather than simply seeing the Constitution in terms of ideology.
On the other hand, in this era of coalition politics, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) cannot insist on its own ambitions for constitution revision.
Today, there are few political parties that would reject outright the idea of revising Japan’s constitution. The debate today is less about whether to revise but rather about how to revise. The trend now is to discuss methods for revision, and what would be revised, while considering the possibility of cooperation among ruling and opposition parties. The LDP, Japan’s ruling party for much of the postwar era, has prepared its own draft for a constitution, and is seeking to compromise with other parties on parts of this draft. The Komeito, while a member of the ruling coalition, takes a different tack, viewing positively our current constitution. We advocate adding to our existing constitution where needed so long as these new rules represent values that were nurtured in the last sixty-nine years and are consistent with the current constitution.
While the LDP and the Komeito differ in how they would approach revision, we agree that a partial revision of the existing constitution is more realistic than attempting to revise the document entirely. No consensus has yet to be reached on the specific contents of revision. A number of issues have been raised for discussion, including new human rights, a clause to strengthen our response to crises, electoral reforms, the establishment of a constitutional court and a rebalance of power between central and local autonomy.
Indeed, the people’s interest still lies in Article Nine, and whether the right of self-defense and the status of the Self Defense Force in our society should be explicitly written into the constitution. While the Japanese people approve of their Self Defense Force, they remain cautious about expanding its role and tend to disapprove of removing limits on the use of force. As a result, popular opinion is skeptical of changes to Article Nine. The Legislation for Peace and Security that came into effect this year allows the limited exercise of the right of collective self-defense, but our government has openly acknowledged that any further expansion would require constitutional revision. Popular opinion will be sensitive to how effectively this new legislation is implemented.
Article Ninety-Six provides a high hurdle for constitutional revision. As long as the Japanese people are skeptical of changing Article Nine, revising this to lower the bar for revision will be difficult. Popular sentiment suggests that anything that requires changes in Japan’s security policy should be dealt with through constitutional reinterpretation and new legislation. There is little indication yet that the Japanese people see any value in creating a new constitution.
Given these circumstances, even if the LDP expands its seats or the ruling coalition secures a two-thirds majority in both Houses, constitutional revision will not begin immediately. In order offer ideas for popular approval through a national referendum, ruling and opposition parties will need deeper discussion. It will take some time for a consensus to form among Japan’s legislators.