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Editorial: Politicians must remember that Constitution is for the people

The Constitution of Japan, a constant companion to the people of this country in the postwar era, will mark the 70th anniversary of its promulgation in November this year. Looking back on the past, there have been numerous discussions on the Constitution, reflecting Japan's position in the international community and changes in public awareness of the supreme law.

A House of Councillors election will be held this summer ahead of the anniversary. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is enthusiastic about amending the postwar Constitution while he is in office, is aiming to make sure that the ruling coalition and pro-amendment opposition parties secure two-thirds of the seats in the upper house. Under Article 96, amendments to the Constitution can be initiated by the Diet if at least two-thirds of the members of both houses of the Diet agree. The ruling coalition already has two-thirds of the seats in the House of Representatives.

As such, depending on the outcome of the upcoming upper chamber race, constitutional revisions could become a realistic possibility for the first time since the supreme law came into force. It is in these circumstances that we celebrate this year's May 3 Constitution Day.

Discussions on constitutional amendments are entering a new phase. Therefore, it is important to go back to the basics and consider what desirable debate on the Constitution looks like.

The prime minister and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) legislators are actively calling for changes. Since there may be some clauses unsuitable to modern Japan in the eyes of the public, it is only natural for the Japanese public to discuss amending the Constitution.

However, numerous questions have been raised over whether debate on constitutional revisions should be left entirely to today's politicians.

The ruling coalition forcibly reinterpreted the war-renouncing Constitution to open the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense, and some governing bloc politicians have hinted at restrictions on freedom of the press. The Diet has failed to take seriously top court rulings warning that the vote value disparities in both houses of the Diet are "in a state of unconstitutionality" -- a situation that is not immediately considered unconstitutional but could be deemed so unless the gap is rectified within a reasonable time. These trends reflect an apparently cynical view of and lack of understanding for the Constitution in the political world.

It is undesirable that politicians with the right to initiate constitutional amendment are inflaming calls for changes even without a fundamental understanding what the Constitution is. Such actions could destabilize our society and indeed the nation.

The current Constitution is a product of Japan's defeat in World War II. Prewar and wartime Japan controlled people's thoughts, suppressed basic freedoms, and sacrificed an enormous number of its own people on the altar of war. In the provisions of the postwar Constitution, the public discovered a determination never to return to that blighted state.

Into Japan's postwar Constitution was incorporated the foundational principles of modern Western states -- that states can never intervene in the conscience of the individual, and that the Constitution bounds those in power and protects the people.

After the war, Japan started over as a country that upholds and respects these principles even though there are historical and cultural differences with Western states. The public has nurtured the Constitution for 70 years.

However, a draft of a new Constitution worked out by the LDP is based on a different principle. The party's draft is based on their calls for an end to the postwar regime -- rewriting the supreme law, which they claim was forced on Japan by the Allies.

What is particularly conspicuous in the LDP draft is that priority is given to public interests over individual freedoms and rights.

Frequently asked questions and answers attached to the draft, provided by the LDP, say that it is necessary to replace provisions in the postwar Constitution based on the Western idea of the natural rights of man with those based on Japan's history, culture and tradition.

History and tradition are certainly important. However, it is unbelievable that Japan has any history or values that are more important than the universal principle of fundamental human rights.

Employment insecurity and a widening income gap are threatening the livelihoods of a growing number of people. Japan's efforts to establish fundamental human rights are only half done. Rather than showing off a draft of a new Constitution that changes the current Constitution's fundamental values, efforts to expand the values accumulated over the law's 70-year life should be prioritized. The LDP, caught up in the idea of Japan enacting a 100 percent Japanese Constitution without any outside influence, is excessively incorporating its own ideology into its draft for the supreme law -- an act far removed from people-oriented discussions on constitutional amendment.

Prime Minister Abe describes cautious views on amending the Constitution as a "brain freeze." However, there is a wide diversity of opinion and discussion on constitutional changes. It is backward to simply divide people into pro- and anti-revision.

All politicians should refrain from making remarks that trivialize and unnecessarily fuel conflicts over the issue. Unilateral assertions of one's own ideas while rejecting different opinions would only feed growth in conflict between polar opposite viewpoints.

When the Abe government proposed three years ago to amend Article 96 to ease requirements for initiating constitutional amendments ahead of revising other clauses, the Mainichi Shimbun voiced its opposition. In an editorial from that time, the Mainichi Shimbun wrote that calls for constitutional revisions could only convince the public and be absorbed into society if the Diet formed a consensus among two-thirds of lawmakers in both Diet houses through thorough debate, and if the view of the legislature matched that of the public as expressed in a national referendum. The public did not support amending Article 96.

Hastiness should be avoided and broad social consensus should be pursued in debate on constitutional revisions. The supreme law should be changed in such a way as it can win broad support from the public while retaining its basic principles.

One way to do so is to concentrate on discussions on how to improve the quality of Japan's parliamentary democracy, such as a review of the roles of the two chambers of the Diet, without touching provisions on fundamental human rights. Adding clauses on the government's response to emergency situations such as natural disasters, which the LDP is considering as the first step toward broader constitutional amendment, is inappropriate as such provisions could run counter to fundamental human rights.

Politics must pursue people-oriented debate on the Constitution and prioritize possible changes to that end. Both the ruling and opposition parties should sincerely accept the significance of the Constitution and take time to hold in-depth discussions.

The Constitution underpins society. Therefore, if polarizing methods for starting discussion on the Constitution were to cause a split in public opinion and destabilize society, it would be putting the cart before the horse. Discussions on the Constitution should begin with reconfirming the basic principle that the Constitution is for the citizenry, and not for politicians.

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