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As I See It: Constitutional change itself should not be the goal

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers a question during a House of Councillors Budget Committee session in which he expressed a strong desire to change the Constitution, on March 2, 2016. (Mainichi)

Time and again, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed his view that constitutional revision will be a focus of this summer's House of Councillors election. Yet he has not clearly stated what he is trying to change. It appears that his goal stops at the mere act of changing the Constitution, rather than changing a particular aspect of it. I think this is a dangerous stance that could leave the foundations of democracy on shaky ground.

    This is not to say I believe that every single letter and phrase of the Constitution should remain unchanged. If the need arises, then it is only natural to change the supreme law to fit in with the times. But within the Constitution, there exist two types of stipulations: those pertaining to procedures, and those covering basic principles such as the sovereignty of the people and basic human rights. When debating the issue, a clear distinction should be made between alterations to procedures and alterations to basic principles. The prime minister, however, has not always made that distinction clear in his calls for constitutional reform.

    In explaining constitutionalism, it is often said that a nation's constitution binds those in power. The Constitution's text respects the fundamental principles of a society which is grounded in basic human rights that no one can violate. The substance of the Constitution is not its text, but the fundamental principles contained therein. If changing the Constitution means changing the basic principles, then that means insisting on reformation that attempts to bring about a revolution overturning Japanese society as it currently stands.

    Before World War II, "reformation" pointed to groups that went outside the nation's basic framework in an unwavering attempt to change the existing order. Abe's grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was referred to as a reformist bureaucrat.

    Though Abe has recently kept his comments to himself, he has taken a negative view of the postwar system created under the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers -- including Japan's Constitution -- and has stated, "We will create a Constitution by ourselves." When he says these sorts of things, it can't be helped if people think that he is trying to change society by changing the Constitution. This position is a long way away from the style of conventional conservatism whose starting point is protecting current society. But even if the prime minister has no such intention, doubts arise that he is trying to change the fundamental principles of the Constitution. And refraining from discussing in concrete terms what he is trying to change only reinforces such doubts.

    When Abe is told he needs to talk about what he wants to change, he points to a draft for constitutional reform produced by his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 2012. But this draft contains items touching on the Constitution's basic principles. For example, it suggests that the public good and public order can serve as principles for restricting the application of basic human rights.

    I can understand the difficulty the prime minister has in talking about the Constitution. When responding to questions in the Diet, he is there both as prime minister and as president of the LDP, and it is difficult to respond while making a clear distinction between those roles. I understand the circumstances that would prevent him from directly denying the draft that his party formally settled upon, regardless of what his personal view is.

    The draft was penned when the LDP was an opposition party, and not many lawmakers within the party are trying to see it implemented as is. The prime minister himself probably does not think it will be implemented in its current format. At the same time, he probably feels that the if he as prime minister and head of the administration talks about constitutional reform in concrete terms, then it could end up hindering debate in the Diet. During a House of Representatives Budget Committee session on Feb. 3, Abe stated, "Which articles are revised and how to go about it will come to be settled in the Diet and though a deepening of public discussion and understanding."

    But while Abe has pressed a strong desire to bring about constitutional reform -- saying, during a House of Councillors Budget Committee session on March 2, "I would like to do this during my term in office" -- one cannot say he has sufficiently explained the need for constitutional change. I imagine this is one reason why priority has been given to political speculation on such issues as how to obtain the necessary two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Diet to initiate constitutional alterations, thereby leading to a lack of discussion on the content of such change.

    As head of the administration, which has a duty to respect the Constitution, Abe should be cautious about making references to constitutional reform. Still, if he as head of a party going into an election wants to put the question of constitutional change to voters, then he must provide sufficient material for discussion.

    When going about constitutional reform, he should build up preparations for sufficient debate on the need for reform, on the major premise that fundamental principles of the Constitution will not be altered. In doing so, he must lay out in concrete terms each item that should be amended, one by one, and present them to the public. I think it is good to discuss new rights that weren't envisaged when the Constitution came into force, such as environmental rights.

    Trying to find meaning in the mere act of changing the Constitution is the same sort of thing as trying to find meaning in not changing it. The prime minister should make it clear he is adopting a position of not changing the essential principles of the Constitution by clearly indicating what he is trying to amend. (By Takashi Sudo, Political News Department)

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