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Editorial: Election debate on revising Constitution needed to strengthen democracy

Constitutional amendment is a key point of contention during the ongoing campaigns for the Oct. 22 House of Representatives election, as various political parties have clarified their positions on the issue and proposed revisions to specific clauses.

The largest opposition Democratic Party (DP), which had been cautious about reforming the postwar Constitution, split following the dissolution of the lower house and many of its members joined the Party of Hope, which endorsed candidates on condition that they support constitutional revisions.

As a result, the spectrum of political parties in favor of constitutional revisions has drastically changed. Therefore, constitutional debate could gain momentum depending on the outcome of the election.

Yet various points of contention over constitutional reform remain, and political parties in favor of revisions to the supreme law differ over clauses they place priority on.

Political parties proposing to change the Constitution should thoroughly explain to the public why the revisions they are seeking are necessary.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) proposes to amend the Constitution to add a paragraph stipulating the existence of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), to make education free of charge, to provide responses to emergency situations such as serious natural disasters, and to eliminate House of Councillors constituencies comprising multiple prefectures.

Abe's ideas are strongly reflected in the proposal to add a paragraph stipulating the existence of the SDF to war-renouncing Article 9, as well as to incorporate into the supreme law a clause on the executive branch's responses to serious disasters and other emergency situations and the extension of the terms of legislators in such situations.

The Party of Hope, a newly established conservative opposition party led by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, is calling for revisions to the Constitution including Article 9, but is prioritizing people's right to know, information disclosure and local autonomy to distinguish its policy from that of the LDP.

Komeito, the LDP's junior coalition partner, has proposed to add clauses to the Constitution to make up for any shortcomings while retaining the basic framework of the supreme law. Still, the party is cautious about supporting Abe's proposal on the issue, saying, "Many members of the public support the SDF's activities and don't think the force is unconstitutional."

Both the LDP and the Party of Hope are seeking to revise the Constitution to make education free of charge, while Komeito, which also places priority on making education free, is reluctant to see the Constitution revised to that end.

Prime Minister Abe attaches particular importance to adding a paragraph providing for the existence of the SDF to Article 9.

The prime minister has claimed that the United States forced the current Constitution on Japan during the Allied Powers' postwar occupation of Japan, and his pursuit of constitutional revisions reflects his nationalistic thoughts.

Abe has proposed to add a paragraph on the SDF to Article 9 while retaining its war-renouncing paragraph 1 and paragraph 2 that bans Japan from possessing any "war potential."

The prime minister says he wants to dispel some constitutional scholars' arguments that the SDF is unconstitutional

In contrast, the opposition Japanese Communist Party (JCP), the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) have expressed stiff opposition to revising the Constitution to give legal grounds to the security legislation, which they call "unconstitutional." The legislation that came into force in March 2016 has opened the way for Japan's limited exercising of the right to collective self-defense.

Concerns remain that stipulation of the existence of the SDF in the supreme law could expand the forces' missions and effectively make paragraph 2 a dead letter.

The Constitution is the fundamental rule with which sovereign members of the public control those in power. Therefore, debate on constitutional revisions should have the direction of strengthening Japan's democracy instead of increasing the state's power. Such a direction would help encourage more people to participate in constitutional discussions.

Reform of the governing structure to review the division of roles between the two chambers of the Diet and the relationship between the national and local governments should be part of efforts to that end.

The Party of Hope has incorporated the introduction of a unicameral system into its campaign pledge. It is true that quite a few critics have pointed out that the House of Councillors simply rubber-stamps decisions made by the lower chamber.

On the other hand, there are those who underscore the need of the upper house as a "stabilizer" to prevent the lower chamber from going too far in its decisions. It has been pointed out that the merger of multiple prefectural constituencies in the upper house to help reduce widening vote-value disparity between the most and least populated electoral districts has caused voter turnout in the affected areas to decline. This issue cannot be separated from discussions on the role of the upper house and the local autonomy system.

Local autonomy is also a focal point at issue during campaigning for the general election. The Constitution stipulates that "regulations concerning the organization and operations of local public entities shall be fixed by law in accordance with the principle of local autonomy." Economic disparities between regions and the concentration of U.S. bases in Okinawa Prefecture offer an opportunity to fundamentally review Japan's local autonomy system.

People's right to know is also an important theme. The relevance of information disclosure is a significant lesson learned from the cover-up of logs on Ground Self-Defense Force troops' activities during peacekeeping operations in South Sudan and the government's sloppy handling of official documents relating to favoritism scandals involving two school operators -- Moritomo Gakuen and the Kake Educational Institution.

Instead of seeking to revise the Constitution for the sake of revision, it is important to review the current Constitution in response to the demands of the times.

However, constitutional reforms cannot be achieved if political parties simply try to force revisions on the public or form a majority of two-thirds in both chambers necessary to initiate such amendments. If political parties were to place priority on constitutional revisions while putting pressing issues on the back-burner, it would be like putting the cart before the horse.

Japan's society faces numerous challenges, such as the declining birth rate and the aging population. Determining the order of priority among various policy issues, including constitutional amendment, is also a point of contention during the lower house race.

Abe has been emphasizing the threat posed by North Korea during his campaign speeches. However, the prime minister should refrain from emotionally appealing for the need for amendment to Article 9 by taking advantage of the crisis.

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