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'Constitution Cafes' effective in helping citizens discuss supreme law

Lawyer Yukiko Takei, center, talks about the Constitution in the Hakata Ward of the city of Fukuoka, on May 3, 2017. (Mainichi)

On the same day as the 70th anniversary of the enforcement of the Japanese Constitution -- May 3, 2017 -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made it clear to the nation that he intends to see a revised Constitution put into force in 2020.

If Abe gets his way, a national referendum on constitutional amendment will take place within the next three years, and the Japanese public will be able to vote "for" or "against" revising the 70-year-old document. However, before such a major decision is put to public vote, there are those who have studied the Constitution who feel that there should be more grass-roots discussion about the matter -- so that the public can make a better-informed decision when it comes to voting.

One such forum for this kind of discussion is the "Kempo Cafe" movement (or "Constitution Cafe" in English). The Constitution Cafe enables members of the public to gather at venues such as cafes or restaurants, and discuss the contents of the Japanese Constitution.

At a Constitution Cafe event in Hakata Ward in the city of Fukuoka on May 3, participants raised glasses of beer in their hands, and talked unreservedly about the 1940s document. They were driven by the motto of, "We need to create a space in which members can talk freely about the Constitution."

Yukiko Takei, a 49-year-old lawyer based in Tokyo, talked as a guest speaker at the Constitution Cafe event in Fukuoka. She told the participants that, "Essentially, the Constitution is something that binds power. We need to be wary of the possibility that if the ruling government changes it as they please, then the public could end up with a Constitution that has detrimental effects."

The Constitution Cafe movement was started in 2013 by "The Young Lawyers Association for The Future of Freedom," which is made up of approximately 570 lawyers across Japan. Typically, a lawyer is invited to each Constitution Cafe event to provide expert advice about the document, as participants listen on attentively and join discussions with a drink or two in their hands.

The stance of the organizing association is certainly not neutral though. They are firmly opposed to the draft constitutional amendments that have been put forward by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). They state that, "The current Constitution values the dignity of individuals and the concept of constitutionalism which binds power. The draft constitutional amendments from the LDP are quite simply totalitarian."

According to the association, there have been more than 1,000 Constitution Cafe events across Japan so far. Commenting on these events, Takei says, "On the one hand, knowledge about the Constitution and the notion of constitutionalism are becoming more widespread," but at the same time, she is apprehensive about discussions that are moving toward constitutional amendment. She stresses the need to reinforce the strength of the Constitution Cafe, and teach regular participants to become "speakers" at future events.

The Constitution Cafe movement has also inspired some attendees to form their own kind of related movements. For example, 44-year-old housewife Nami Kuboi from Tokyo set up her own "discussion group" at home after visiting a Constitution Cafe event. Kuboi was influenced by the visit, stating that, "Initially, I thought that it was enough for politicians to know about the Constitution, and that it had nothing to do with me. However, after learning about Article 13 -- which places value on the dignity of individuals -- I realized that the Constitution is something that protects us."

The following year, after receiving some advice from Takei, Kuboi set up her own home discussion group, and says she has hosted about 25 sessions so far. She explains that, "The meetings are a chance for us to speak about articles that resonate or which we think are important." Kuboi adds, "Actually, the opinions have more impact if they are delivered by a regular citizen, as opposed to a lawyer."

Meanwhile, groups in favor of amending the Constitution such as Junior Chamber International have also held discussion events on the Constitution. However in some cases, the events have been canceled due to a lack of interest -- suggesting that there is more work to be done to get the nation as a whole interested in discussing the Constitution.

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