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Japan’s constitutional revision debate masks silent state control

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Protests against Article 9 revisions outside Prime Minster Shinzo Abe's official residence in Tokyo, 15 May, 2014 (Photo: Reuters/Yuya Shino).

In Brief

Japan’s current constitutional revision debate is a silent challenge against freedoms espoused by the 1947 constitution. While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set aside revision of the controversial Article 9 peace clause for the moment, his administration’s inclination towards state control of civil liberties will shadow any future revision process.


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The 1947 constitution, brought into effect after World War II, successfully democratised Japan. It stipulates a wide range of human rights and institutionalises democratic governance while abolishing pre-war authoritarian legacies. The three principles of the constitution — people’s sovereignty, human rights and the renunciation of war — originated from the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, which was the de facto occupation force. Despite this, the majority of Japanese political elites as well as the public accepted the new constitution.

Meanwhile, conservative groups who supported Japan’s pre-war regime worried about democratisation and demilitarisation. They have sometimes criticised the constitution in its 70 years for limits on remilitarisation laid out in Article 9 and little mention of duties to the state. Yet a formal process exploring constitutional revision did not take place in the Diet until the end of the 1990s.

In the early 2000s, various political groups proposed drafts for a new constitution. Among them, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) sought to increase state control of liberties and to weaken pacifist constraints on the use of force. The LDP emphasised public responsibilities to the state, while direct restrictions on human rights were not mentioned. Although there was no consensus on the possible contents of a new constitution, Abe’s first government (2006–2007) enacted a national referendum law for constitutional revision in 2007. His resignation later that year halted the campaign.

In Abe’s second (current) term, his government emerged with a strong ideological commitment to constitutional revision. Abe believes that state control of civil liberties like free speech and public respect for the state are crucial for the creation of a ‘new Japan’. The 2012 LDP draft for a revised constitution included not only the resurrection of pre-war nationalistic ideas in the preamble, but also increased state control of liberties in the name of national security.

Abe won the 2016 upper house national election and thus obtained a two-thirds majority in both houses with coalition party Komeito and other pro-Abe groups. With this majority, Abe can start Diet processes for constitutional revision. Article 96 stipulates that any proposed changes to the constitution would then require a national referendum. This would mark the first revision of the constitution in the document’s 70 year history.

Defying pro-revisionist expectations, Abe was cautious about pushing the LDP draft too strongly. He replaced the nationalist, revisionist chairman of the Commission on the Constitution in the House of Representatives, Okiharu Yasukoa, with Eisuke Mori, who is not an active proponent of the nationalistic LDP draft. Article 9 and the contents of the preamble, the two most contentious sections, are excluded from revision priorities.

Issues up for debate in the Commission this year include election reform, the revision of conditions for dissolution of the Diet, the relationship between the central and local governments and suspension of the constitution in national emergencies. LDP leaders believe that these issues can win widen support from other parties.

Despite this moderate mood, the LDP’s desire for strong state control underlies its argument for the suspension of the constitution in national emergencies. In natural disasters, war or other similar crises, the LDP view is that private properties should be able to be commandeered and freedom of speech restricted for public order or national security purposes. In the LDP’s draft constitution, this suspension would be allowed by administrative orders from the executive.

Leftists will oppose this restriction based on pre-war Japan’s record of state violations of human rights, but the LDP will maintain its national security and public benefit argument.

At this stage, the consequences of such a change are hard to determine, but Abe’s stance on the state and civil liberties will show his true colours. His government’s strong commitment to the enactment of the ‘conspiracy bill’ and his and his wife’s support for a controversial, imperialist-leaning private school in Osaka have gone some way towards that. Abe’s present moderate posturing on constitutional revision only hides his nationalistic enthusiasm for revision for now.

Japan’s written constitution is the country’s highest authority, and even slight changes will have serious consequences for the government’s relationship with the public. The issues subject to constitutional revision may be dealt with by statute, but Japanese political elites including Abe are excessively inclined to seek constitutional revision based on their own ideals. The unintended or unspoken legal consequences could lead to the violation of human rights.

In liberal democracies, the constitution should stand for protection of civil liberties first, not the authority of the state. Japan’s political elites may have lost sight of this basic characteristic of their own constitution.

Toshiya Takahashi is an associate professor at Shoin University, Japan and a PhD Candidate at the National Security College, The Australian National University.

5 responses to “Japan’s constitutional revision debate masks silent state control”

  1. One thing not noted in this otherwise excellent analysis is that Abe ‘reinterpreted’ Article 9 in order to justify so called ‘collective self defense.’ He knew that the electorate would never give a 70% approval to a formal amendment to Article 9. So he went around that by doing this ‘reinterpretation’ on his own.

    I doubt that the ‘Japanese elite have lost sight’ of the importance of the protection of civil liberties in their post war Constitution. I think Abe and his nationalistic cohorts believe that this was forced upon them by MacArthur. They want to return to their ‘good old days’ when the Emperor was sovereign and the people worshipped/obeyed Him. For Abe this would be the ‘beautiful nation’ he so sorely wants.

    • Abe’s recent efforts to bring back the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education into the daily life of the country’s schools is an example of my point.

    • Thank you for your comment indeed. I can share your concerns with the problems of Article 9 and the resurrection of prewar Japanese tradition in Japan’s constitutional revision. (About Article 9 and Article 96 in the 2012 LDP draft for constitutional revision, I wrote an article, “Security and the meaning of Japan’s constitution”, in East Asia Forum Quarterly (Re-inventing Japan) last year. As to Japanese conservatives’ assertion of “the imposed constitution”, I wrote “Abe’s campaign to revise Japan’s Constitution,” in East Asia Forum, 15 June 2013. So, I excluded those issues while they are important.)

      My intention this time is to shed light upon Japan’s constitution debate “now” . Abe and his government set aside their actual priorities (Article 9, Article 96, and the preamble) last year and attempt to realize constitutional revision first, avoiding controversies with key opposing parties. But, even in the less controversial issues indicated in my article, their challenge against the core of the 1947 constitution can be observed. This is the problem that this article would like to show. At this stage, the public is less informed. And, the emergency article can be justified to the public if the cases of natural disasters are used. (Japan has experienced too many.) In addition, pro-revisionist political elites of the LDP seek to constrain the freedoms of the 1947 constitution without appreciating them, and to make clear the authority of state in this constitutional revision. So, they may have lost sight of the protection of liberties which is the basic character of the constitution.

  2. No doubt an interesting article.

    ARTICLE 9 of Japan’s constitution states clearly:

    1) 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.

    If Abe has the temerity to call for a referendum on Article 9 and wins, then Armageddon is on the horizon as History will repeat itself, while the people in the West and Japan sleep-walk into another senseless global war, which could go nuclear from the start and no nation is spared.

  3. I have carefully gone through this article and it is an excellent one. I have been a great admirer of Japanese culture and lifestyle although I come from a place where it’s not known or followed much. It’s totally fascinating and inspiring.
    Coming back to this article and the discussion surrounding this debate that is going on in much larger part of the region including Japan, my only point of concern is the national security of the country.
    If I am to support the Japanese people’say voice, I am totally with it since I have closely followed the World War 2 history of Japan and the consequences it faced because of its aggression and brutal nature of war crimes and inhumanity. So looking all these, this makes sense.
    On the other hand, if I am to give my opinion in favour of “changing the Pacifist Constitution”, I have reasons for it. The first one is “Increasing and Agressive Millitary Posture of China”. How does the Japanese Population plans to minimize it and being so highly ranked in Humar Development Index, they should be able to predict it that China will definitely destroy and take away what they hold dear. Is China currently not doing so. The second reason is “An aggressive North Korea”. How will Japan defend from such a nuclear powered nation. The third reason is ” Increased terrorism and militancy”. How will Japan curbed and abolish that.
    I myself come from a country where there is enemy in our western border who continue to violate LOC boundaries and keep inflicting terrorists almost everyday. And then Chinese tensions in Eastern Borders along the himalayas. 90per cent of resources needed for my country’s economic survival comes through the sea and China is threatening to take away that. And given Japan’s historical evolution, this hold the same for them. Sea is the way of Japan’s survival.
    My country is also not interested in war and territorial hunger but we do it because we are forcefully dragged into it (please read the cause of 4 Indo Pakistani War and the real reason behind the Indo China War). Given that, I too understand the value and viewpoint of Japanese People’s emotion.
    But here we have to understand why Japan is changing the constitution for. It’s not because so that they can forcefully occupy other territories. It’s because so that they can protect what’s their own before other snatch it from them.
    This Japan is very different from the World War era Japan. Now they understand the value of better human living so it does not make sense if we are to assume that the War Crimes and Human Brutality committed then will prevail now also. Because the world is not the same as it was 70 years back.
    So in my view, what answer does the Japanese people give if they were to ask “How will you save yourself when you have two cruel neighbouring countries on two sides?” (just like India is currently facing). Will it not make sense if they are to believe that Japanese Government is abolishing the Constitution not because so that they can set out on world domination, but only because they want to save the country from growing world threat. Because in any way it’s not written any where that Nobody will attack Japan just because they are following the Pacifist Constitution. It might so happen that tomorrow China may attack Japan or any superpower may attack Japan. How will the Japanese people defend a large scale Millitary Invasion.

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