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Main opposition Democratic Party at crossroads over Constitution

The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) has argued against constitutional amendment under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but is not against constitutional amendment itself. Now that the so-called pro-amendment camp has captured over two-thirds of the seats in both the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors, however, there is a real possibility that discussion on revisions to the Constitution will go ahead with or without the DP's participation.

This puts the DP in the difficult position of either maintaining its opposition on constitutional amendment or shifting gears so that it can have a say in the debate. In the DP leadership election set to take place by the end of September, candidates' position on constitutional amendment is likely to become a major point of contention. Because DP lawmakers are wide-ranging in their political beliefs, from liberal members who are wary toward constitutional amendment to the more conservative pro-amendment camp, the party will face some hard decisions in the days ahead.

In October 2005, the then Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) -- the DP's predecessor before it merged with the Japan Innovation Party -- compiled constitutional recommendations that included the explicit statement of Japan's right to self-defense. This came after a final report agreed upon by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the then DPJ, and Komeito in the respective constitutional commissions of the Diet's upper and lower houses -- the mood during constitutional debate among the three parties back then was collaborative. However, when in 2007, during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's first administration, Abe raised constitutional revision as an issue at stake in the upper house election, the then DPJ took a confrontational stance, bringing discussion on constitutional revision to a standstill.

Indeed, the halt of discussion on the Constitution worked in favor of the newly established DP. By positioning itself as an "anti-Abe" party, it was able to get by without addressing the intra-party gap between those who want to keep the current Constitution and those who argue for revision. If the DP is pushed to clarify its stance as the main opposition, it will have to make some difficult decisions.

"I have no objections to activating the constitutional commissions," DP leader Katsuya Okada said on a television program the night of July 10. Also in a television appearance on the same night, DP Secretary-General Yukio Edano explained the DP's position, saying, "We are not bent on keeping the current Constitution. We are not against minor amendments." Edano argued, however, that the constitutional commissions should first discuss whether or not the security-related legislation passed last year is unconstitutional, applying pressure on the LDP, which is eager to start discussions on constitutional amendment.

Protesting constitutional amendment under the Abe administration was a major pillar of the united front set up by the opposition DP, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and the People's Life Party and Taro Yamamoto and Friends. Whether or not the DP judges the alliance to have been a mistake will be tied directly to the position it will take regarding the Constitution, as the defeat of the DP in an upper house election in which it uncharacteristically collaborated with the JCP and the SDP -- both guardians of the current Constitution -- may prompt conservative DP lawmakers to push the party leadership in a pro-amendment direction. With the party presidential election looming in the months ahead, the DP faces the possibility of fierce intra-party conflict.

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