By Shamshad A. Khan
As the “National Referendum Law” to revise Japan’s postwar Constitution went into effect on May 18, pro-amendment lobbies in the country have expedited their efforts to get over with the US-drafted supreme legal documents, which place stringent limits on the use of force.
The national referendum law was enacted by the Shinzo Abe government in 2007 amid criticism by peace groups within Japan as well as strong remarks by neigbouring countries who viewed this development as aimed at turning Japan into a militarist state. The referendum law gave three years time to the people as well as political parties to discuss, debate, and unify their position on the issue.
As the referendum law goes into effect, the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has spearheaded debates on amending the pacifist Constitution since its establishment in 1955, prepares itself to submit a draft proposal of constitutional revisions in the current Diet session. Also, in its election manifesto released for the Upper House election due in June 2010, the party calls for the establishment of a new Constitution and a new law that would allow for the expeditious overseas dispatch of Self-Defense Force (SDF) personnel.
As always, the centre of the Constitutional amendment debate is the “Renunciation of War” clause1 – Article 9 – which bans Japan from maintaining “land, sea and air forces” and forbids the use of force to “settle international disputes”. To overcome the constitutional constraints in maintaining armed forces, Japan has used Article 51 of the UN charter which recognizes the right of self-defence as an inherent right of every nation and thus it has named its defence forces as Self Defense Force. But many in Japan including the Social Democratic Party (SDP) consider the SDF as an illegal and unconstitutional body. Thus, the pro-amendment lobbies in Japan want a specific clause in a revised Constitution to provide legality for its defence forces. They also advocate a revision of Article 9 because the pacifist clause has left a wider impact on Japan’s defence and security policies. Policies such as ban on arms exports and related technology, the 1 per cent of GDP cap on defence spending, the three non-nuclear principles and the ban on deployment of SDF in combat zones during UN peacekeeping operations all stem out of Article 9 and were adopted by different governments under the influence of peace lobbies in Japan. The pro-revision lobbies believe that an amendment of the Constitution, especially Article 9, will ease certain restrictions presently in place.
But hurdles before the “establishment of a new Constitution”, as the LDP envisions in its election manifesto, are many. The top-most challenge is Article 96 of the Japanese Constitution, which spells out that amendments to the “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.” This article has proved to be one of the bottlenecks to amending the Constitution. Because of its specific conditionalities of two-third majority in the Diet and a public referendum, the Japanese Constitution remains unamended ever since its promulgation in 1947.
The LDP, which is to submit a draft proposal of constitutional revisions to the current Diet session, would have to rely on other pro-amendment parties including the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to gain a two-third majority in the Diet. The ruling DPJ is not averse to the idea of revising the constitution. In fact, the DPJ leader and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama2 as well as DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa3 have in the past presented their own proposals on how to amend the Constitution including Article 9. But since the DPJ was formed by the dissidents of the LDP and SDP, opposition will come from within a faction of DPJ which still carries the legacy of left politics. The SDP, a junior coalition partner to the DPJ government, will act as yet another drag on the issue. SDP chief Mizuho Fukushima has made it clear that she will oppose any moves on Constitution revision. “I will not allow the Diet chambers constitutional research panels to get under way,” the Japan Times quoted Fukushima as saying. Thus, gaining two-third majority on the issue of Constitutional revision in the present Diet appears very difficult.
The strong reactions from Japan’s neighbours on the Constitutional revision issue, as seen in the past, act as yet another constraint for Japan. The referendum Law drew strong criticism in the past from neighbouring countries like China and North Korea. The Chinese official news agency had termed the Japanese Diet’s passing of the bill as yet another “substantive step” in Japan’s path towards “amending the peace charter”. It opined that this step has aroused “high concern and misgivings among the people of Asia who suffered Japanese invasion and enslavement.” South Korea termed the referendum law as “a step towards militarism”. North Korea had termed the effort to revise the Japanese Constitution as a step aimed at turning Japan into a “war state”. A signed commentary carried by the leading official newspaper Rodong Sinmun had stated that “the Japanese reactionary’s moves to retrogressively revise the Constitution at any cost are aimed to turn Japan into a war state for aggression.” It seems the DPJ government which is in a process of strengthening its ties with regional countries does not want to offend its neighbours and has been skirting the issue. Prime Minister Hatoyama recently said that “Debate on the Constitution should take place,” but at the same time added that “public and the government face other pressing issues that directly influence society, including reviving the economy and curbing the high unemployment rate.” This hints to the fact that Constitution revision is not on the agenda of the present government and it does not want to move beyond a “debate”.
The Japanese public which has to take a final call on the issue in a referendum as laid down in Article 96 of the Constitution also seems to be losing enthusiasm on the issue. A recent nationwide survey conducted by a pro-amendment media group, the Yomiuri Daily, suggested that 43 per cent of those polled supported constitutional reform. The daily noted that it was a “significant drop from 52 per cent recorded in a similar survey taken a year ago.” The daily also reported that 42 per cent of respondents said they opposed changes in the Constitution. Given the trends in the latest public opinion surveys it would be difficult to put revisions to the Constitution to a referendum. Thus the fate of the referendum Law enacted during the Abe regime seems to hang in the balance.
Since the Law on Constitutional referendum was enacted by the Japanese Diet, it becomes an obligation for the ruling government. But since the situation to revise the Constitution is not favourable, the DPJ is likely to continue to drag its feet. However, the DPJ leadership which favours amending pacifist clauses of the supreme legal document to increase Japan’s contribution to international security, will wait for an opportune time.
1. 1. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution: “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 a mean of settling international disputes. (2) 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.
2. 2. The Hatoyama Proposal on Article 9 reads as follows: “Japan shall maintain Land, Sea and air forces, as well as other war potential. Japan shall neither use the forces for act of aggression nor shall Japan employ conscription.”
3. 3. The Ozawa proposal reads as follows: (Right of self-defense) – “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) 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. The regulation in paragraph 2 does not prevent the maintenance of military power for the purpose of exercising Japan’s right of self-defense against military attack by a third country.”
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/IsJapanreadytoshunthePeaceConstitution_sakhan_190510