Photo/IllutrationYukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, left, locks horns with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the issue of constitutional revision during a livestreamed debate in Tokyo’s Minato Ward on June 30. (Shiro Nishihata)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to frame the July 21 Upper House election as a choice between a party willing to engage in debate on the Constitution and those refusing to do so.

Abe has repeatedly used this rhetoric in his campaign speeches on the streets and in an election debate among party leaders.

While there is no denying that debating policy issues is a vital part of the job of Diet members, we cannot support Abe’s argument concerning parties’ stances toward discussions on the Constitution.

Abe is irate over the fact that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has not been given an opportunity to explain its proposal to amend the Constitution at the Commissions on the Constitution of both Diet houses over the past year or so.

However, no party has totally ruled out the need for constitutional debate, as Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the LDP’s junior coalition partner, Komeito, pointed out.

The commissions have not been convened in line with the LDP’s requests, but the blame should not be placed entirely on the opposition camp, as Abe has been trying to do.

In his speech in August last year, before the LDP’s leadership election, Abe said the time for mere discussion is over and it was time to take action.

He expressed his intention to gear up the party’s efforts to submit a constitutional amendment to the Diet during the autumn extraordinary session.

After being re-elected as LDP president for a third term in September, Abe replaced the LDP’s chief director of the Lower House Commission on the Constitution, who had led the ruling party’s members of the commission and won the trust of opposition party members on the panel. Abe also appointed a close associate in the LDP who advocates constitutional revisions to a key party post concerning constitutional issues.

The Commissions on the Constitution have traditionally adopted a policy of ensuring cooperation between the ruling and opposition parties on grounds that debate on constitutional issues should be held in a calm and staid environment without being influenced by partisan politics.

Unsurprisingly, however, the opposition parties have been alarmed by the ruling coalition’s apparent plan to use its overwhelming majority in both Diet houses to set the tone for debate and amend the Constitution.

It is doubtful, in the first place, whether Abe can be justified in criticizing opposition parties for not being keen to debate constitutional amendments.

The Abe administration and the ruling coalition have rejected opposition demands for an extraordinary Diet session and Budget Committee sessions.

The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan submitted bills to the Lower House last year to phase out nuclear power generation and to revise the Civil Code to allow married couples to use separate surnames. These bills have yet to be discussed at a Diet committee.

The Abe administration has a history of refusing to engage in debate on inconvenient issues.

There can be no meaningful debate on constitutional revisions unless it is about a specific proposal to amend a specific provision for a specific purpose.

Abe’s campaign remarks about constitutional amendments have mostly been focused on opposition parties’ stances toward war-renouncing Article 9. In criticizing the opposition parties’ move to field unified candidates, Abe has often pointed out that the Japanese Communist Party views the Self-Defense Forces as unconstitutional.

But he has seldom discussed the LDP’s proposal, drafted by the party’s headquarters, to change Article 9.

Abe asserts that codifying the constitutional status of the SDF in Article 9, as he has proposed, would not cause any change in the SDF’s operations.

But many opposition lawmakers and experts take a dim view of Abe’s argument. They fear the step, according to the LDP’s draft, could pave the way for Japan to engage in full-scale collective self-defense.

Abe has changed the government’s traditional interpretation of Article 9 to allow Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense under limited situations. But the proposed amendment, if implemented, would remove the limitations, according to critics.

Abe has yet to make a serious response to this criticism. The prime minister, not the opposition parties, should take the blame for the lack of meaningful debate on constitutional amendments.

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 20