Japan’s Moves to Amend Constitution Face Upper House Delays

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida leaves a meeting of his Liberal Democratic Party’s Headquarters for the Realization of Revision of the Constitution in Tokyo on April 25 after delivering an address.

Wednesday marked the 76th year since the Constitution came into effect. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, as president of the Liberal Democratic Party, has expressed his willingness to revise the Constitution during his tenure as LDP leader through September next year.

In the Diet, however, while discussions in the House of Representatives have been gathering speed, debates in the House of Councillors are progressing slowly. Unless both houses of the Diet keep in step with each other on the issue, it may affect the schedule for constitutional amendment.

Kishida has been urging members of both houses to accelerate discussions on constitutional revision.

“I want the Diet to deepen discussions,” he has often said.

“I want you to promote efforts to increase the number of lawmakers who would agree across party lines” with constitutional amendments, Kishida said during a meeting of the LDP’s Headquarters for the Realization of Revision of the Constitution on April 25.

The number of Diet deliberations on constitutional revision has significantly increased since last year, when the lower house’s Commission on the Constitution started to regularly meet once a week. Last year, this commission met 15 times during the ordinary Diet session and five times during the extraordinary Diet session, far greater than the combined four times in the previous year. In the ordinary Diet session this year, the commission has already met nine times.

The commission has started examining specific items for amendments.

Regarding the establishment of a state of emergency clause, one major point of which is to extend the tenure of lower house members when it is difficult to hold an election, the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito as well as Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) and the Democratic Party for the People have agreed on the need for one. As commission members continue discussions in more detail, they are getting close to consolidating their opinions. Since April, they have been having active discussions on revisions to the Constitution’s Article 9.

Concerns over authority

On the other hand, discussions at the upper house Commission on the Constitution have been slow to progress. Partly because an advocate of maintaining the Constitution in its current form from the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan served as the chief director for the opposition parties at the commission, it met only six times during the regular Diet session and twice during the extraordinary session last year, less than half as often as the lower house commission. This year, the council has so far met only three times.

The state of emergency clause on which four parties agreed at the lower house commission faces calls from some upper house members to discuss the issue with caution. Article 54 of the Constitution defines holding an emergency session of the upper house as a response to the absence of lower house members due to its dissolution. Therefore, some upper house members think that discussions on extending the tenure of lower house members would mean the denial of the upper house’s authority.

“The significance of an emergency session of the upper house needs to be carefully discussed,” said Makoto Nishida, who heads a group of Komeito’s upper house lawmakers.

While the upper house commission is taking up the discussion on the emergency session, it is also debating the issue of integrated constituencies combining neighboring prefectures in upper house elections. For these reasons, it is not holding intensive discussions focusing on specific issues for revision.

“There are a variety of issues concerning the Constitution,” said LDP veteran Hirofumi Nakasone, chairman of the upper house Commission on the Constitution. “As an initial step, we are giving our priority to issues related to the emergency session and integrated constituencies, which directly involve us.”

Before holding a national referendum on revising the Constitution, a draft bill for a constitutional amendment must be initiated by the Diet and obtain a majority vote in the Commission on the Constitution in both houses of the Diet, followed by a two-thirds majority vote at the plenary session of both houses.

“Discussions are making progress, but it’s only at the lower house,” a senior LDP member said. “It will be necessary to make some adjustments in order to fill the gap between the two houses.”

Scheduling referendums

The National Referendum Law stipulates that a referendum must be held between 60 to 180 days after the amendments are initiated by the Diet. In order for Kishida to revise the Constitution during his tenure as LDP president through September next year, it will be necessary to initiate the amendments by the middle of next year at the latest.

Some LDP members are circulating a schedule under which the items for amendment, including the state of emergency clause, would be narrowed down during the ordinary Diet session this year. A draft constitutional amendment bill or an outline of a draft bill would be compiled by ruling and opposition parties, with the aim of initiating amendments in the ordinary Diet session next year.

Others, however, think that more time will be needed given the gap in views among amendment-seeking forces with regard to points such as Article 9.

Amid speculation in some quarters that Kishida will dissolve the lower house by the end of this year, a former Cabinet member said, “In order to increase the enthusiasm among the public for constitutional revision, he should dissolve the lower house and make an appeal for amending the Constitution.”