Seventy years have passed since the postwar Constitution came into force on May 3, 1947.
The current Constitution is based largely on the principles of the Potsdam Declaration, which Japan accepted in its surrender ending World War II. The declaration demanded that Japan respect fundamental human rights and establish a "peacefully inclined and responsible government." Japan was compelled to fundamentally reform the Meiji Constitution, implemented in 1890.
Shortly after the end of the war, the Japanese government drew up its own draft of a new constitution, but it was only a partial modification of the Meiji Constitution. Therefore, 25 staffers at the Government Section at the General Headquarters of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers worked out a draft and urged Japan to adopt it.
Under such circumstances, there is no doubt that the current Constitution was enacted under the overwhelming authority of the Allied Powers. Still, the role that this Constitution has played in building postwar Japan should be highly appreciated.
The primary reason for that is the postwar supreme law drastically expanded democracy throughout Japanese society. The largest change of all was the shift of sovereignty from the Emperor to the Japanese people.
Freedom of speech and the right to life are guaranteed as eternal and inviolable rights. The principle of equality under the law ensures gender equality as a social norm. Women's suffrage was achieved in the April 1946 House of Representatives election held before the Constitution came into force.
The second reason is that the Constitution served as the basis for Japan to restore its war-devastated economy. Income equalization through democratization expanded the scale of Japan's market. The country's nominal GDP, which had stood at 8.6 trillion yen in 1955, grew more than 10-fold by 1972. Japanese people have obviously become affluent.
More notable is that the Constitution has helped Japan establish an image as a peaceful country.
Depending on the international situation of the time, Japan came under pressure to change its security policy, but Article 9 of the Constitution served to keep Japan from straying from its renunciation of war.
The policy of minimizing Japan's defense capabilities and prioritizing injecting resources into economic growth was launched by Shigeru Yoshida, who was prime minister when the Constitution came into force.
International political scientist Masataka Kosaka says of Yoshida's realistic policy line, "He endured criticism from those who insisted that Japan remain completely unarmed, as well as from those who called for revisions to the Constitution, and stood firm in his logically ambiguous position," says Kosaka.
The current Constitution has not been revised once since it went into effect -- making it a rare specimen among modern constitutions. However, that does not necessarily mean that the political situation surrounding the supreme law is wholesome, as wide gaps in basic views on the document persist.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was formed with the ultimate goal of creating a new, entirely made-in-Japan constitution. This stems from the humiliation felt by many LDP lawmakers over what they see as a supreme law forced onto their nation by the Allied Powers. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe strongly supports this view.
There are also those who, as a counter to those they see as reactionary conservatives, oppose changing a single word in the Constitution. Their view is based on antipathy towards Japan's prewar militarism.
The relentless feud between these two forces has prevented calm debate on the Constitution. Both the complete rejection of the postwar Constitution and viewing the current supreme law as sacred are extreme positions. These forces are particularly far apart on the Constitution's Article 9 and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. Article 9, which renounces war and bans Japan from possessing any war potential, is a product of the postwar regime, while the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty is a consequence of the Cold War.
Article 9 and the bilateral alliance are two sides of the same security policy coin. However, since they have different historical backgrounds, the government has needed to use complicated logic to implement them both. As a result, the government has repeatedly reinterpreted Article 9, and deliberations on security bills aimed at opening the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense split public opinion.
Furthermore, it should be pointed out that the Constitution's binding force on laws is weak -- a serious structural problem. A typical example is Article 92 on local autonomy, which states, "Regulations concerning organization and operations of local public entities shall be fixed by law in accordance with the principle of local autonomy." It thus allows specific rules on local governments to be provided by laws. If the clause specifically defined the "principle of local autonomy," the ongoing conflict between the national and Okinawa prefectural governments over the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma might have followed a different course.
According to studies by Kenneth Mori McElwain, associate professor at the University of Tokyo, provisions on decentralization of power account for roughly 30 percent of Germany's Basic Law, which is the equivalent of a constitution, but such clauses make up a mere 3 percent of the Constitution of Japan.
A constitution provides for the fundamental principles of a country. What should be defined by that constitution and what should be governed by laws differs from country to country. However, if a constitution fails to provide for basic governance rules, it could allow the government to interpret the supreme law arbitrarily.
As Prime Minister Abe is expected to stay in power for a long time yet, constitutional discussions are about to advance to a new stage. Since legislators in favor of constitutional amendment occupy more than two-thirds of seats in both houses of the Diet, the LDP is aiming to narrow down items in the Constitution that should be revised. Revisions can be initiated by the Diet through a two-thirds majority vote among all the members of each house before holding a referendum.
The commissions on the Constitution in both houses of the Diet are considering one clause allowing the terms of Diet members to be extended in case of a serious disaster, and another aimed at redefining House of Councillors members as representatives of the nation's 47 prefectures in response to rural population decline.
Revisions to governance rules based on the changing times are all right. However, the LDP appears to wish to revise constitutional clauses that are relatively easy to change before attempting to fulfill its long-held desire to revise Article 9. This causes discussions between ruling and opposition parties over the issue to go 'round in circles. It is therefore necessary for major political parties to share a minimum understanding of the war-renouncing article.
To hold positive discussions on the Constitution, Japan should deepen its principle of international cooperation. Rather than asserting Japan's own defense policy based on its egoistic views or thinking it does not have to be involved in any international security arrangement, Japan should consider the significance of Article 9 today while pursuing international peace.
After Ground Self-Defense Force peacekeepers complete their withdrawal from South Sudan, there will be no Japanese troops participating in any such U.N. mission anywhere.
In the 21st century, there is a growing tendency in peacekeeping missions to prioritize the protection of residents affected by armed conflict, even with the use of force. It is a tough but necessary challenge to decide how Japan should contribute to international security while maintaining the pacifism provided for by Article 9.
Maintaining peaceful relations with the rest of the world is vital to Japan as an island country. Japan can overcome its negative view that the current Constitution was forced on this country by expanding the supreme law's role on a global scale.