New era, new challenges for 74-year-old Constitution / Emergencies, digital tech among issues

In this era of massive change, it is important to go back to the Constitution, the foundation of the nation, to tackle new issues. Public debate must be deepened from a broad perspective.

The 74th Constitution Day has arrived. The basic principles of popular sovereignty, respect for fundamental human rights and pacifism have taken root among the people and have become the foundation of postwar Japan. It is our responsibility to protect these ideas and pass them on to future generations.

However, the current state of the Constitution, which has not been modified at all since its enactment, is undesirable. Many nations have revised articles in their constitutions to reflect the changing times. It is a matter of course for Japan to discuss amendments if there are issues that need to be addressed.

Reality gap?

A new infectious disease has spread, threatening the lives and livelihoods of the people. Neighboring China has become a great military power, heightening tensions in areas such as the East China Sea. Information and communications technology is becoming more sophisticated, while artificial intelligence is taking over some of the work done by humans.

When the Constitution was enacted, it would have been unimaginable that such an era would come. And it will be difficult for a charter enacted more than 70 years ago to adequately respond to an ever-changing Japanese society and international situation.

Is there a gap between reality and the Constitution? If the priority is simply to avoid revising the Constitution, there is a risk that unreasonable interpretations will arise and the “rule of law” will become a mere formality.

It is the responsibility of a legislature to review the articles of a constitution, compile the desired changes into a proposed revision and present the proposal to the people.

The people of Japan are sensitively aware of the changing times. In a Yomiuri Shimbun opinion poll on the Constitution, the percentage of respondents who answered that it would be better to revise the Constitution rose by seven percentage points to 56% from the previous poll.

The increase apparently came from deepened awareness over emergency situations due to the spread of the novel coronavirus infection and a sense of caution toward China, which continues to act unilaterally.

As for how to respond to emergencies such as a major disaster or the spread of infectious diseases, 59% of respondents favored “revising the Constitution to clearly stipulate in the articles the responsibilities and powers of the government.” Only 37% of respondents favored “dealing with the situation through individual legislation.”

The Constitution has no provisions for emergencies. It might be viewed that the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was slow because discussions on emergencies were neglected. In light of the change in public awareness, the ruling and opposition parties need to sort out the issues to be discussed.

Make specific proposals

The proposed articles for constitutional revision compiled by the Liberal Democratic Party in 2018 will likely serve as an influential basis for debate.

The main focus of the proposal is to stipulate clearly the legal grounds for the Self-Defense Forces in the Constitution and to dispel the arguments that remain in some areas that the SDF are unconstitutional. While maintaining the current Paragraphs 1 and 2 of Article 9, it proposes to add clauses stipulating the retention of the SDF.

As China and North Korea threaten the peace and stability of East Asia, it is significant to explicitly state in the Constitution the existence of the Self-Defense Forces, which are responsible for Japan’s security. The LDP must continue its efforts to gain the public’s understanding by fully explaining the contents and aims of the revision.

The LDP proposal includes provisions that allow the government to enact emergency ordinances to protect the lives and property of the people in the event of a major disaster, as well as special exemptions that allow the term of office of Diet members to be extended.

What kind of brakes should be put in place to prevent unprincipled restrictions on personal rights? There are also issues such as whether to add the spread of infectious diseases and terrorism to the list of emergencies. Considerations must be given from various perspectives.

At the end of last year, the Democratic Party for the People published an outline of issues for revision. The party proposed revising Article 13, which stipulates respect for the individual, to ensure that the dignity of the individual is protected even in the cyberspace.

Digital technology has penetrated society in general, including at home and in education. Tech giants collect vast amounts of personal information beyond national borders and exert an influence on the economy and expression of ideas, almost rivaling that of state power.

From the perspective of the Constitution, it is not of little significance to consider a direction for regulations.

Hold earnest debate

There are a mountain of issues to be examined, such as the lack of coordination between the central and local governments highlighted by the COVID-19 crisis as well as the division of roles between the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors and the state of the election system.

It is unfortunate that debate has stalled in the commissions on the Constitution in both chambers of the Diet.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, among other parties, has opposed a vote on the bill to revise the National Referendum Law submitted by the Liberal Democratic Party, Komeito, Nippon Ishin no Kai and others in 2018, the despite the fact that the proposal is in line with the revised Public Offices Election Law. This situation has been a hindrance to the debate on the Constitution itself.

It cannot be said that the legislature is fulfilling its responsibility if it avoids debate on the supreme law of the nation. The ruling and opposition parties should pass the revision bill for the referendum law as soon as possible and start earnest debate on the Constitution.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 3, 2021.