Speed Up Discussions on Constitutional Revision in Light of Changing Times / Extending Diet Members’ Terms of Office an Option

Today (May 3) marks the 76th anniversary of the implementation of the Constitution. In light of the changing times and security environment, it is vitally important to constructively discuss what the supreme law should be like and revise it where necessary.

Japan has enjoyed stability and economic prosperity under the Constitution’s basic principles of popular sovereignty, respect for fundamental human rights and pacifism.

On the other hand, a series of unforeseen events have occurred, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the spread of infectious diseases and large-scale disasters. The international community, including Japan, is under pressure to respond swiftly to these crises.

A series of unexpected situations

Is it possible to respond appropriately to the current turbulent times with the Constitution, which has never been amended since the end of World War II?

According to a recent Yomiuri Shimbun survey, 61% of respondents were positive about constitutional revision, up one percentage point from the previous year and reaching 60% for the second consecutive year.

In light of the experience of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the changing international situation and the spread of the novel coronavirus, there is clearly a growing awareness among the people that simply adhering to the current provisions of the Constitution is not enough to deal with anomalous circumstances.

This change in public awareness is probably also accelerating the debate on the Constitution in the Diet.

In the current Diet session, the Commission on the Constitution of the House of Representatives has already met nine times, and that of the House of Councillors three times. It is noteworthy that the ruling and opposition parties are holding vigorous discussions.

One of the topics being discussed by the parties is how to respond to emergencies.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito are advocating the need for a provision that would allow Diet members’ terms of office to be extended so that the Diet can continue functioning in the event of an armed attack, large-scale disaster or other unforeseen events, coinciding with a lower house dissolution or a national election in line with the expiration of Diet members’ terms of office.

Other parties, including Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) and the Democratic Party for the People, have also jointly compiled a draft provision that would extend the term of office of Diet members for six months in such unforeseen circumstances.

The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, on the other hand, argues that even such situations could be dealt with under a provision in Article 54, Paragraph 2 of the Constitution that states that “the Cabinet may convoke the upper house in emergency session.”

The Constitution states that the Cabinet may seek this upper house emergency session “in times of national emergency.” However, it can be applied only during a dissolution of the lower house and does not have in mind a prolonged emergency.

It is especially in times of emergencies that there is a great need to appropriately enact laws and approve budgets and so forth. There is a need to ensure that the legislature is able to fulfill its functions in all circumstances.

At the Commission on the Constitution of the lower house, the LDP presented a list of issues to be addressed concerning the revision of Article 9. The content calls for discussion of such issues as including provisions for the existence of the Self-Defense Forces and civilian control, among others.

In addition to its original defense mission, the SDF’s role has been growing, including the protection of Japanese nationals and international contributions. It is significant to clearly state the existence of the SDF in the Constitution.

However, the debate on revising Article 9 has been slow. The year 2015 saw the passage of security-related laws that allow the SDF the limited exercise of the right of collective self-defense. In some respects, this has deepened the Japan-U.S. alliance and improved the SDF’s response capabilities, which may be a factor in lowering the priority of the debate.

Don’t fixate on vote values

In recent years, both houses of the Diet have been working to reform the electoral systems to correct the “disparity in vote values” at the request of the judiciary to emphasize “equality under the law.”

However, the disparity is expected to widen in the future as the population continues to flow from rural areas to cities. If “equality under the law” is perceived as equality in vote values and the disparity is corrected strictly, the number of Diet members to be elected from rural constituencies will continue to decrease.

One way to resolve such an issue is to position upper house lawmakers as “local representatives,” as in the LDP’s draft proposals for constitutional revision that were compiled in 2018.

According to an opinion survey, 52% of respondents said that there is no need to fixate on the disparity in vote values in the lower house electoral system, higher than the 42% who stated that importance must be placed on correcting the disparity. It is likely that many are concerned that voices of local people will be less reflected in national politics.

The ruling and opposition parties should actively discuss the division of the roles of both chambers of the Diet as well as how the electoral systems of both houses should be organized.

AI threatens constitutional principles

New technologies such as artificial intelligence are being developed and are becoming more convenient. On the other hand, some argue that excessive use of AI may threaten the Constitution’s provisions on fundamental human rights and respect for the individual.

It cannot be said to be healthy that AI collects credit information and judges the level of trustworthiness of individuals based on opaque criteria.

In addition, the government’s use of generative AI model ChatGPT, which produces natural sentences, in its answers at the Diet could lead to entrusting legislative power to AI. The role of the highest organ of state power would be ignored.

Apart from the debate on constitutional revision, it is important to go back to the principles of the Constitution and discuss the regulation of advanced technology.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 3, 2023)