What manner of constitution debate will Japan have?

In the wake of yesterday’s passage of the national referendum bill, each major daily unsurprisingly featured an editorial looking forward to the next three years of debate on revision.

In the left-wing Asahi Shimbun, the mood was, unsurprisingly, despondent about the passage of the bill. At the same time, though, the tone was defiant, taking up the prime minister’s challenge to make the July Upper House elections about constitution revision.

The issue of most concern seems to be that in the LDP’s draft constitution produced last year, the second clause of Article 9 says, in lieu of the prohibition on the maintenance of armed forces for aggressive war and the renunciation of the right of belligerency, “To ensure the peace and independence, as well as the security, of our country, the prime minister shall be the commander-in-chief and a self-defense ‘army’ shall be maintained.” [The draft uses 自衛軍 instead of 自衛隊, indicating the elevation of the JSDF — which currently use the nominally more modest-sounding “force” — into a proper military.]

Lamenting the lack of debate heretofore, Asahi argues that this proposed change should be the basis for a popular debate on revision.

The right-of-center Yomiuri Shimbun, meanwhile, criticizes the DPJ for its opposition, in spite of the fact that “not a small number of members” believe strongly in revision. Echoing the prime minister, Yomiuri argues, “The international situation and Japan’s security environment have been dramatically transfigured, Japan’s economic system is changing fundamentally, and there are conditions at home and abroad that could not even be imagined at the time the constitution was created. Furthermore, [Japan] must weather more waves of great change to come.” Yomiuri also argues that it is imperative for the DPJ and Komeito to make their own draft revisions quickly.

The right-wing Sankei Shimbun, similar to the Yomiuri, criticized the DPJ and Komeito for heretofore failing to draft substantive revision, and laments the superficial character of the constitution revision debate thus far, which is odd, considering that unlike the Asahi and Yomiuri editorials, the Sankei editorial does not even hint at what the major points of discussion ought to be.

Obviously readers will note that one common thread running through these editorials is concern about the quality of debate thus far, and calls for a widespread debate on revision in the Diet and among the Japanese people at large. Interestingly, when discussing the issues involved in revision, the editorials talked solely about Article 9. While Article 9 is fundamental — the constitution is, after all, often described as “Japan’s pacifist constitution” — it seems that the debate is as much about what kind of country Japan should be in the twenty-first century; Japan’s security posture is but one part of that debate, and it is imperative that other parties to the debate begin to take in the same terms as Abe. To date, it seems that Abe alone has talked, however vaguely, about the Japan as it ought to be, essentially having the field to himself.

It is long past due for Abe’s opponents to present their own, preferably more concrete, visions for Japan’s future, and to challenge the assumptions made by the prime minister that constitution revision is a necessary step to a better future for Japan. The burden of proof is on advocates of revision, not on those who are skeptical about or in outright opposition to revision: Abe and company have to demonstrate, concretely, how the system designed by the constitution has failed, and how revision will enable the Japanese state and people to better cope with future challenges and ensure continuing prosperity.

It is also time that opinion leaders begin questioning the government’s assumption that constitution revision is a necessary condition for creating a “beautiful country.” I strongly disagree with Yomiuri‘s argument that because aspects of the world today were not envisioned sixty years ago, the constitution must be reformed. Statements like that must be backed up with solid demonstrations of what makes them so.

Has the modern world fatally undermined the relevance of Japan’s postwar constitution? How so?

When Abe talks about discarding the postwar regime, what does that mean? What part of the regime? Just the security bits? Or the whole bloody mess? If so, why isn’t Abe talking about destroying the LDP, which has played an outsized role — arguably a more significant role than the constitution — in shaping postwar Japan?

Vestiges of the 1955 system, which has long distorted policy by placing sectional and local interests above national interests, remain. Why isn’t Abe turning his attention to this significant piece of the “postwar regime”?

And what about the assumption that because Japan’s security environment is changing, it must revise its constitution? Why revise, if re-interpretation will suffice?

And, above all, what exactly do the Japanese people want?

On these questions, it seems that Abe and other advocates of revision have been given a free pass.

Ultimately, I think constitution revision is useless without political reform. Japan’s problem is not its constitution, but rather the parasitic policy making system — the alliance between the LDP and the bureaucracy — that has no constitutional standing whatsoever, and has perverted Japan’s institutions to selfish ends. Changing the constitution without changing the policy making process, which necessarily means destroying the LDP as it exists, is futile.

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