Photo/IllutrationProtesters hold signs to show their opposition to the planned revision of war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution at a rally in Tokyo’s Koto Ward on May 3. (Shinnosuke Ito)

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Thousands of people across Japan attended rallies both for and against constitutional amendments on Constitution Day on May 3, a time when the untouched supreme law of the land faces its most serious challenge.

At issue was Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to introduce the first revisions to the postwar Constitution, including war-renouncing Article 9, since it went into force 71 years ago.

In Tokyo’s Koto Ward, an estimated 60,000 people joined a rally opposing constitutional revision under the Abe administration, according to organizers of the event.

“We were able to enjoy peace after the end of World War II thanks to Article 9,” said Toshihiro Yamauchi, professor emeritus of the Constitution at Hitotsubashi University. “We should pass it down, as it is, to our grandchildren’s generation, rather than moving toward preparations for war by specifying the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces in the Constitution.”

Organizers reported that 13.5 million signatures have been collected nationwide since they started a petition last fall to highlight their opposition to Abe’s proposed changes.

Calls erupted at the rally for the collection of an additional 16.5 million signatures.

Article 9 not only renounces war, but it also prohibits Japan from maintaining land, sea and air forces, a stipulation that some say makes Japan’s SDF unconstitutional.

On May 3 last year, Abe announced details of his plan to spell out the legal status of the SDF in Article 9. In a video message for the Kokai Kenpo Forum, which is associated with Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), an organization that has pushed for an entirely new Constitution, the prime minister also proposed that the amended Constitution should go into force in 2020.

Abe gave a video message again for this year’s Kokai Kenpo Forum, saying, “The debate over constitutional revision has been greatly galvanized over the past year due in part to my proposal.”

However, this time, Abe did not say when the revised Constitution should take effect.

Tadae Takubo, chairman of Nippon Kaigi, said of Abe’s plan: “It will define the honorable status of the SDF in the Constitution and raise the morale of SDF members. The revision might not be the perfect one that we have hoped for, but it would be much better than not revising it.”

Fumihiro Uchida told the forum, held in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward and attended by an estimated 1,200 people, that clarification of the SDF’s status as well as the addition of an “emergency situation provision” to deal with natural disasters are the top priorities.

The additional provision, mentioned in a proposal by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, would give the Cabinet special authority and restrict people’s rights during national emergencies.

Uchida represents Utsukushii Nippon no Kenpo o Tsukuru Kokumin no Kai (national council of establishing the Constitution of beautiful Japan), one of the organizers of the forum.

At a similar pro-amendment rally, Junpei Kiyohara, chairman of Atarashii Kenpo o Tsukuru Kokumin Kaigi (national assembly to establish a new Constitution), urged participants to recognize the gravity of a possible referendum on the changes.

Constitutional amendments must first be approved by two-thirds of lawmakers in both Diet chambers before the public votes on the proposals in a national referendum.

“People should not renounce their crucial rights” by not voting, he told an audience of about 450 at the meeting in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. “They should start studying to have a better understanding of the required steps toward the amendment.”

Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, a former prime minister, served as the first chairman of Atarashii Kenpo o Tsukuru Kokumin Kaigi.

A similar-sized crowd of about 400 gathered in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward for a discussion event organized by Yoshinori Kobayashi, a conservative manga artist who objects to constitutional changes under the Abe administration.

Academics and politicians discussed the possibility of amending the Constitution in a way that would strengthen the rule of constitutionalism.

One panelist pointed out that Article 9 should be changed to clearly spell out what the SDF can and cannot do.