Japan’s constitutional changes could echo through Asia

National Constitution Center

Possible changes to Japan’s constitution may restrict some rights and expand its military, having implications regionally and even in America. They also raise a basic question: Should it be easy to change a constitution?

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Emperor Hirohito signing current constitution

Emperor Hirohito signing current constitution

Emperor Hirohito signing the current constitution.

Japan celebrated its Constitution Day on Friday as controversy loomed over changes being led by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and his Liberal Democratic Party.

Japan marked the 66th anniversary of a constitution drawn up after World War II. It was written by American officials who were concerned with the possible return of Japan as a military power.

One constant discussion in Japan has been changes to Article 9, which limits the country’s military to a self-defense force. In recent years, the interpretation of Article 9 has been stretched to allow Japan to expand its forces.

But its military can’t take part in collective actions with U.S. forces, which is a growing issue as Japan and China boost their military spending.

Abe has made sure that in the upcoming elections in the upper house of Japan’s parliament (known as the National Diet), the central campaign issue is a constitutional revision beyond Article 9. He has pushed for significant changes to the country’s constitution–and for making the amendment process much easier.

The Liberal Democrats want to change Article 96, which requires two-thirds of both houses of parliament to approve a constitutional amendment before it goes to a national referendum for voters to approve.

This is similar to how the U.S. Constitution works, expect that state legislatures, not voters, ratify amendments in America.

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The change to Article 96 would allow just a simple majority of the Diet to approve a proposed amendment, and a simple majority of voters to ratify it in a national referendum.

Such a radical change could allow one party, if it controls a simple majority of the government and the electorate, to rapidly add amendments—which is the exact opposite of the system used in the U.S. Constitution.

For now, polls in Japan show strong support for the Liberal Democrats, but mixed signals about changing Japan’s constitution. Many Japanese voters remain undecided on the issue of constitutional change, according to some reports. One poll showed support for constitutional changes at just 39 percent.

Abe’s popularity may force the issue, since it’s possible that the Liberal Democrats could control two-thirds of both houses of the Diet after the summer elections or in coming years.

Japan’s current constitution was written in just a few weeks in 1946 by staffers who worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

The Liberal Democrats say they want a truly Japanese constitution that reflects their nation and its historic values–not those of the West.

Their draft version from 2012 is “appropriate to the times and circumstances of Japan,” the party said in a press release. That would include an emphasis on a traditional definition of family.

“It newly prescribes that a family shall be respected as a basic unit of a society and that family members should help one other,” the draft says.

Opponents believe that traditional definition could reduce rights held by women in Japanese society, since men hold the dominant role in family relations. They also think that free speech would become subordinate to a desire to keep “public order.”

But the bigger issue could be the fear of China and South Korea’s reaction to a Japan with a traditionally Japanese constitution.

“The real concern is that a couple of years later, we move to a redefinition of a ‘new Japan’ as an authoritarian, nationalist order,” Yale University law professor Bruce Ackerman told Reuters.

Last week, Abe said he saw no reason to explain Japan’s possible constitutional changes to China and South Korea. Both countries suffered harshly at the hands of Japan during World War II.

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