Constitution revision back on the agenda?

Yomiuri has released the results of its annual poll on constitution revision and has found that once again a majority — a slight one, 51.6% — favors revising Japan’s constitution. This marks a nine-point increase over last year’s poll. Opposition to revision fell from 43.1% to 36.5%.

Interestingly, majorities among both self-described LDP supporters and DPJ supporters supported revision, 54% and 53% respectively.

Among respondents who support revision, 49% said that the international contributions are impossible because the current constitution didn’t anticipate new challenges. Asked specifically about Article 9, 38% of respondents (up from last year’s 31%) said that Japan has reached the limit to what it can squeeze out of Article 9 via interpretation and manipulation, and so it should revise it, 33% (down from 36%) said that there is still room for interpretation and manipulation, and 21% (down from 24%) argued that Article 9 should be strictly protected.

Yomiuri also asked about a possible revision that would make the Diet unicameral: 39% supported preserving the upper house, while adjusting the roles and powers of the two houses, while 28% support merging the two houses entirely.

Without seeing the whole poll, I don’t know what Yomiuri has left out of its summary of the results. I don’t know, for example, whether Yomiuri asked respondents who favor revising Article 9 what should take its place, given that there is a broad range of opinions on how Article 9 should be changed. Yomiuri explains the shift over the past year as a response to new JSDF missions and frustration with the divided Diet. Maybe so, but what this poll doesn’t tell us is where respondents would rank constitution revision on a list of national priorities? As we saw with the collapse in public support for constitution revision once Japan actually had a prime minister who viewed constitution revision as a top priority, how many of the respondents who said they support revision actually believe that this should be a top concern for the government?

Meanwhile, will Aso Taro be tempted to reintroduce constitution revision as a major priority as the LDP goes about drafting its manifesto for the forthcoming general election? Constitution revision will obviously be a plank in the party’s manifesto, but the question is whether it will look more like 2005 — when constitution revision was in the final grouping of proposals, “Changing Japan’s foundation” — or more like 2007, when constitution revision was listed as number one in the LDP’s list of 155 proposals. Nakasone Yasuhiro has announced the creation of a new non-partisan Diet members’ league for the establishment of a new constitution, which will hold a convention on 1 May featuring Diet members from the LDP, Komeito, DPJ, PNP, and Reform Club and observers from business groups. Perhaps looking to 2011, when the moratorium on constitution revision that was included in the 2007 national referendum law expires, Nakasone demanded that constitution revision be on the agenda during this year’s election campaign.

While Nakasone wants both major parties to have a discussion about revision, reintroducing constitution revision to the national agenda could potentially disadvantage the DPJ seeing as how constitution revision is perhaps the one issue that could unravel the uneasy settlement Ozawa Ichiro has imposed on the DPJ. The DPJ’s 2007 manifesto fudges the issue, suggesting the revision needs to be a bottom-up process, but if the LDP forces the DPJ to address the issue in a campaign, the DPJ members who will be participating in Nakasone’s new league (unknown for now, but easy enough to guess who they are) may feel obliged demand more from the leadership on the constitution. Talking about the constition would also shift the spotlight from the government’s powerlessness in the face of the economic crisis.

That said, I think constitution revision would be as much a loser for the LDP in 2009 as it was in 2007. There is nothing inconsistent about a majority supporting revision — leaving aside the question of whether Yomiuri‘s poll accurately captures public sentiment — without wanting it to be number one or even in the top five on the ruling party’s list of priorities. As noted previously, voters are frustrated with Japan’s leaders for failing to take their views into account. I don’t think the public would be amused by the government’s changing the discussion from how best to save Japan’s economy to constitution revision. As in 2007, this year’s election will be about livelihood issues and governance. Seeing as how Japan’s governance problems have little to do with formal institutions as outlined in the constitution, constitution revision will barely figure in the campaign, notwithstanding the efforts of Nakasone and other conservatives to make it an issue.

Finally, to return to the question of why a majority of respondents once again favors revision, I suspect that it has less to do with any specific event or action taken during the past year than with a general, directionless desire for change. The public sees a broken system, and has concluded that systematic change is needed — and systematic change ought to include constitution revision. At this point, however, constitution revision would be a waste of time and effort on the part of the Japanese people and their representatives. Japan’s governance problems do not lie in its constitutional arrangements. They rest with the informal arrangements that have emerged around LDP rule. The constitution, after all, says nothing about the relationship between bureaucrats and politicians other than that the Diet is the highest organ of state power and that the Cabinet is the source of executive power. Around those two articles have emerged a complicated set of informal institutions that manage the relationship between the Diet, the prime minister and cabinet, and the bureaucracy, which is only mentioned in the constitution to stress its subordination to the prime minister.

The bureaucracy’s power is derived from the cabinet, and returning power to the cabinet — widely agreed upon as the key to fixing Japan’s institutions — depends not on constitution revision but on enforcing what the constitution actually says.

One thought on “Constitution revision back on the agenda?

  1. Nice piece. This is one issue I\’ve been working on in detail lately and I agree with your analysis. The issues in this next election will be centered on the economy, not campaign contributions or sending the MSDF to help fight piracy.


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