As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration aspires to revise the pacifist Constitution, a national referendum on constitutional amendment would likely be called separately from a national election should the Diet ever propose a change to the supreme law, sources close to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have revealed.
The referendum, if held, would be the first of its kind in Japan and would likely take place sometime after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. As the next House of Representatives election looms in December 2018 or earlier and the House of Councillors election is scheduled for the summer of 2019, while deliberations on constitutional revision have yet to deepen at the Commission on the Constitution at each chamber of the Diet, a national referendum is unlikely to take place until after the 2020 Games.
Abe aims to win the LDP presidential election in September next year to secure three additional years as prime minister, after which he is likely to pursue the timing of a national referendum on constitutional revision.
Article 96 of the Constitution allows for calling a national referendum on constitutional amendment both independently or simultaneously with a national election. However, ruling and opposition members of the lower house Research Commission on the Constitution, which was set up in 2000, concluded that a national referendum and a national election should not take place simultaneously.
The decision was backed by arguments that a national election in which the fate of a regime is at stake is different in nature from a national referendum to decide whether or not to revise the Constitution, and that it would be difficult to balance between election campaigns that are bound by many restrictions and national referendum campaigns in which the principle of freedom should be respected.
Subsequently, the LDP-Komeito alliance and the then Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, the predecessor of the Democratic Party) respectively submitted a lawmaker-sponsored national referendum bill to the Diet.
At a lower house special research committee on the Constitution in 2006, which deliberated both bills, the LDP stated that "Although there are no regulations to ban simultaneously holding a national referendum and a national election, we guarantee at the political discretion of the Diet (that the polls are called separately)" -- in response to a question posed by the DPJ.
Okiharu Yasuoka, head of the LDP's Constitutional Reform Promotion Headquarters and one of the sponsors of the LDP's national referendum bill, said, "We have a clear direction on the discussion ever since we debated the issue at the Research Commission on the Constitution."
Taro Nakayama, former head of the lower house Research Commission on the Constitution, also stated during an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, "A national referendum should be called separately from a national election, as it would be easier for the public to see the whole picture of revision that way."
Before the Diet initiates a revision to the Constitution, the following steps need to be taken: narrowing down items in the Constitution subject to change; drafting revisions to those items; and screening draft revisions at the Commission of the Constitution at each chamber of the Diet. A ruling party source says "One Diet session is not enough" for the screening of draft revisions before they are put to a vote at the commissions on the Constitution and plenary sessions at both houses of the Diet.
Furthermore, a consumption tax hike from the current 8 percent to 10 percent is scheduled for October 2019, which could adversely affect the governing bloc in elections and opinion polls. Therefore, it is unlikely for a national referendum on constitutional amendment to be called between the latter half of 2019 and the former half of 2020.
The first paragraph of Article 96 of the Constitution stipulates: "Amendments to this Constitution shall be initiated by the Diet, through a concurring vote of two-thirds or more of all the members of each House and shall thereupon be submitted to the people for ratification, which shall require the affirmative vote of a majority of all votes cast thereon, at a special referendum or at such election as the Diet shall specify."
A national referendum act based on the provision was enacted in 2007 during the first Abe administration. Those aged 18 or over are eligible to vote in the referendum. (Those aged 20 or over are eligible until June 20, 2018.)