Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks in a video message during a meeting on constitutional revision held on May 3, 2017, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

On Constitution Day on May 3, 2017, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he wanted to see a “new Constitution” come into effect in 2020.

In a TV program aired recently by Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK), Abe said his intentions concerning this policy challenge “have not changed at all,” reiterating his strong desire to realize the first-ever amendment to the postwar Constitution.

But Abe added that he will not set any strict time frame for his constitutional amendment initiative. He should match his words with actions and stop his efforts to ensure that Diet debate on the proposal will be concluded within a specific time limit.

As soon as the ruling coalition between the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner, Komeito, won more than two-thirds of the Lower House seats in the general election in October 2017, the LDP hastily worked out its specific proposal to rewrite the Constitution.

It is composed of four items, including a new provision in the war-renouncing Article 9 to codify the constitutional status of the Self-Defense Forces.

Revelations about the Finance Ministry’s falsifications of official documents in March last year, however, hurt the Abe Cabinet’s approval ratings, leaving many LDP lawmakers feeling that this was no time for pursuing constitutional amendments.

After being re-elected as LDP president for a third term in September, Abe handpicked Hakubun Shimomura and other close political allies within the party for key party and Diet posts related to constitutional amendments in a move aimed at revitalizing Diet debate on the issue.

Shimomura criticized opposition party lawmakers for refusing to engage in debate on constitutional amendments, saying their attitude was tantamount to “walking off their jobs.” Shimomura’s remarks had opposition parties up in arms with the result that no substantial discussions were held at the Lower House Commission on the Constitution last year.

Even though the direct cause of the situation was partisan confrontation, one major factor behind the lack of progress toward full-fledged Diet debate on the issue seems to be weak public support for the aggressive campaign for the initiative staged by Abe and the LDP, which is clearly driven by a strong determination to achieve their long-held political goal.

Abe has been pushing hard for his proposal to secure the SDF’s constitutional status, but his rationale for this amendment is the importance of “pride of SDF personnel,” a highly emotional value.

He has claimed that the proposed revision to Article 9 of the Constitution would not change the SDF’s roles in any way. If so, what is the point of revising it in the first place?

In an Asahi Shimbun poll for last year’s Constitution Day, 53 percent of the respondents voiced opposition to the proposal. That is hardly surprising.

If a majority of the people had felt the need to amend the Constitution, the opposition parties would have been compelled to engage in debate on the LDP’s proposal.

The developments concerning the issue last year have proved that a political campaign to amend the Constitution led by people in power, whose powers are defined and limited by the supreme law, can never be a reasonable policy initiative.

Last year, a controversy arose over whether TV campaign ads concerning a referendum on constitutional amendments should be legally restricted.

That was because the Japan Commercial Broadcasters Association, the industry body that was expected to announce voluntary regulations on such TV campaign ads, announced it would be difficult to impose restrictions on them.

Opposition parties are demanding restrictions on such paid commercials, arguing that the outcome of a constitutional referendum could be affected by a powerful TV ad campaign financed by cash-rich sponsors.

This is an issue that requires careful debate from multifaceted views focused on how to ensure both free and lively discussions and the fairness for campaigns by both sides.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 10