Deliberations at a meeting of the House of Representatives Commission on the Constitution convened on May 9 -- for the first time in 15 months -- focused on restrictions on television commercials on the pros and cons of constitutional revisions.
The Act on Procedures for Amendment of the Constitution of Japan bans the broadcasting of TV commercials urging people to vote for or against changes to the supreme law over a 14-day period prior to the referendum.
Since such advertisements can be freely aired before that period, concerns remain that the frequency of such commercials could affect people's voting behavior.
The legal ban on TV commercials on the issue over a two-week period prior to the referendum is aimed at securing enough time for voters to make judgment on constitutional reform in a calm environment. This is because it is widely believed that a large volume of advertising has a huge influence on public opinion.
When the law was enacted 12 years ago, it was assumed that the Japan Commercial Broadcasters Association (JBA) would impose self-restraints on TV ads on the issue. However, a representative of the JBA declared in the May 9 Diet constitutional panel meeting that the industry will not restrain the volume of such advertising, citing freedom of expression.
Main opposition parties reacted sharply to the announcement by the JBA. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan is insisting that a total legal ban should be imposed on commercials on the issue. The Democratic Party for the People has also proposed to totally ban political parties from airing TV ads on constitutional reform and limit the amount of money other organizations can spend on such commercials to 500 million yen each.
Under Article 96 of the Constitution, the Diet can propose a draft of revisions to the supreme law through a concurring vote of two-thirds or more of all the members of each chamber. Since importance has been attached to forming a consensus between ruling and opposition parties on a draft of constitutional revisions through in-depth Diet deliberations, TV commercials urging the public to vote for or against amendments to the Constitution were considered part of campaigns to raise public awareness on the details of revisions.
The idea that a referendum on constitutional reform should be held freely with as few restrictions as possible is understandable all the more because it would be the first revisions to the postwar Constitution.
However, the ruling coalition and other political forces in favor of constitutional amendments have more than two-thirds of seats in both houses, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who returned to power in late 2012, is seeking to change the supreme law even by confronting the opposition camp. Considering these changes in political reality, it is necessary to explore the possibility of setting an upper limit on the total amount of funds that can be spent on TV commercials on the issue.
Moreover, in view of the diversification of the media through which members of the public gather information, it is an urgent task to consider how to create rules on online advertisements on the pros and cons of constitutional reform, which are not subject to the current law.
Referenda in other countries, including one in which Britons voted to withdraw from the European Union, have demonstrated that in policy decisions by referenda involving all voters, excessive populism could cause domestic confusion and serious political divisions in countries concerned.
A cautious and thorough institutional design should be made for procedures for revisions to the supreme law.