Japan’s Cautious Steps Towards Constitutional Reform

Abe has the numbers, but does he have the political capital? Takenaka Harukata comments.


Last Novemver, the Committees on the Constitution reconvened in the House of Councillors as well as the House of Representatives. In respective meetings, the political parties presented their respective views on possible revisions of the Constitution. Some political parties such as the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Democratic Party (DP) referred to the provisions they have felt necessary to be amended.

Since returning to power in December 2012, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and the LDP have continued to call on other political parties to deepen discussions on how to revise the Constitution. Discussions have begun. Yet, the political parties are far from converging their views first on whether it is necessary to revise the Constitution and second on how to revise the Constitution. Given the actual needs for amending the Constitution and the other issues confronting the cabinet, it is hard to see the debate on constitutional reform progress in the short term.

Article 96 of the Constitution stipulates that it is necessary to have support from more than two-thirds of all members of each chamber to propose amendments to the Constitution. Further, proposed amendments have to be approved by the national referendum. For a long time after the introduction of the current Constitution, the Diet made no legislation on how to provide specific procedures to introduce and implement constitutional amendments.

In May 2007, during Abe’s first term in office, the LDP and Komeito succeeded in passing a national referendum bill, in which they provided procedures for a possible constitutional revision. The bill stipulated procedures to call for a national referendum on constitutional amendments and set the voting age at 20 and over. (In the June 2015 amendment, the voting age was officially lowered to 18.) It included an article stating that constitutional amendments in different issue areas should be proposed individually. This article makes it difficult to implement a comprehensive revision of the Constitution in a single amendment, requiring the Diet to initiate amendments on an article-by-article basis, or for a set of several mutually related articles, and ask the public for the final judgment. In other words, it is considered impossible to propose in a single amendment to revise Article 9 and to introduce a new article on, for example, environmental rights.

In recent years, the debate on constitutional reform had been led by the LDP. One of the founding principles adopted by the LDP was “the introduction of a self-determined Constitution.” Although the party briefly refrained from referring to the introduction of a new Constitution in its manifesto in national elections, in its campaign pledges for the House of Representatives election in 2000 the LDP once again declared that the drafting of a new Constitution had been one of the party’s principles since its formation, and promised to deepen debates on the creation of such a Constitution. The LDP proposed the draft of a new constitution on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in October 2005. In April 2012, a year which marked the 60th anniversary of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the party introduced another draft of a new Constitution, which had included a new provision on “the national defense force.”

The LDP won the general election in December 2012, and Abe Shinzo made a comeback as the prime minister. Prime Minister Abe shortly showed enthusiasm for constitutional reform, in particular for revising Article 96 of the Constitution, which stipulates the procedures for amending the Constitution. Abe hinted at relaxing the requirements for initiating amendments. He, however, encountered strong opposition from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and other opposition parties. After the House of Councillors election in July 2013, the prime minister dropped the idea of amending Article 96. Nonetheless, Abe has continuously demonstrated his eagerness to revise the Constitution.

The LDP committed to revising the Constitution by submitting a draft for constitutional amendment to the Diet in the party platform for the 2014 general election.

After the general election, Prime Minister Abe and the LDP began to emphasize the need to add a new article to prepare for a state of emergency.

During the tenure of Prime Minister Abe, however, debates in the Committees on the Constitution (which have the authority to initiate constitutional reforms) did not deepen. The commissions in both the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors started on discussions on a possible revision of the Constitution in March 2013. From November 2014, they began to discuss the issues which each party felt were necessary to be taken into account in the process of examining a possible constitutional revision. In June 2015, however, constitutional scholars invited as witnesses declared the so-called Peace and Security Preservation bills unconstitutional. These testimonies shifted the focus of debates in the committee in the Lower House from the revision of the Constitution to the issue of the right to collective self-defense. As a result, the debates in the committee essentially stalled. Meanwhile, discussions in the Committee on the Constitution in the House of Councillors often focused on the issue of the bicameral system.

In July 2016 the House of Councillors election was held. This time, attention focused on whether or not the total number of seats occupied by the pro-revision forces, namely, the LDP, Komeito and other political parties and politicians, would go beyond two-thirds of the total number of seats in the House. In the 2014 general election, the LDP and Komeito had already secured more than two-thirds of the seats in the House of Representatives; if the pro-revision forces were able to obtain more than two-thirds of the seats in the House of Councillors, they would secure enough seats to propose a constitutional amendment.

In his New Year’s press conference in January 2016, Abe acknowledged that he would pledge a constitutional reform in the House of Councillors election. He also clearly stated in a debate in the House of Councillors Budget Committee in March, that he would like to achieve a constitutional revision during his current tenure. As the election drew closer, however, the prime minister was not so eloquent about a constitutional reform. He only referred to reopening the Committees on the Constitution during an extraordinary session of the Diet and to calling for deepening debates on a possible constitutional revision.

As it turned out, the LDP and Komeito won 56 seats and 14 seats, respectively. With other seats of political parties and politicians in favor of a constitutional revision, this left them with a total of 165 seats; three more than they needed to secure more than two-thirds of the total number of seats in the House of Councillors. Notwithstanding such a success, Abe has shown no signs of rushing constitutional reforms, calling instead for “cautious debates” in the Committees on the Constitution.

What Next?

Will the debates for a constitutional revision expand from now on? In fact, constitutional revisions are unlikely to happen anytime soon, for the following three reasons.

First, the practical necessity of revisions. Many Japanese citizens (politicians included) don’t see the current constitutional provisions causing urgent political, economic or social problems for Japan now. The author considers that such questions as the relationship between the two Houses and the frequency with which national elections are held do have a profound impact on Japan’s policymaking process and therefore there is a need to consider reforming these institutions. Possible reform should include amendments to the Constitution. This view, however, is not widely shared by the Japanese public nor by Japanese politicians at the moment.

Second, even within the pro-reform camp, there are diverse views on how to revise the Constitution. Even within the LDP, there are different opinions. Before the House of Councillors election, the LDP had cited environmental rights, state-of-emergency and fiscal discipline provisions as issues to which it attached priorities in the Committees on the Constitution. More recently, the LDP changed its position. In the most recent debate, the LDP referred to clear stipulations for the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) in Article 9 and a new article for state-of-emergency as urgent issues. The coalition partner, Komeito, meanwhile remains very cautious on the whole idea of amending the Constitution.

Third, the Abe administration is faced with many urgent political agendas. It has already become clear that the monetary easing policy, which had been one of the pillars of Abenomics, is not as effective as was expected. The Abe cabinet has to remain very cautious about Japan’s domestic economic situation. Further it is forced to re-design its foreign economic policy, given the announcement by Donald Trump that the United States would withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) following his inauguration as U.S. president. Prime Minister Abe has been spending much time on the peace treaty negotiations with Russia. Moreover, in light of the message released by the Emperor in August, in which he strongly suggested his desire to abdicate, the government now has to pave a way for the Emperor to abdicate, which is impossible under the current law.

The revision of the Constitution will require a huge amount of political capital, and the Abe administration may not have the capital to spare.


TAKENAKA Harukata is a professor of political science at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.


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