January 12, 2023
TOKYO – Whether any progress will be made toward amending the Constitution is sure to be a focal point of the ordinary Diet session to be convened on Jan. 23.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party hopes to give top priority to an amendment to create an emergency clause. It also aims to accelerate debates so that a vote can be held on a constitutional amendment in 2024.
However, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration has been weakened by declining approval ratings, making it less certain that the government can show a clear path towards constitutional amendments.
“I would like to amend the Constitution. It is quite important to think about how Japan should be and the position of our country in the world through the Constitution,” Kishida, the LDP president, said on a Nippon Broadcasting System radio program on Jan. 1. After taking office as prime minister in 2021, Kishida declared his aim to have the Constitution revised before his term as LDP president ends at the end of September 2024.
The Constitution states in Article 96 that amendments “shall be initiated by the Diet, through a concurring vote of two-thirds or more of all the members of each House, and shall thereupon be submitted to the people for ratification … at a special referendum.”
The national referendum, with the result decided by a simple majority, must be held from 60 to 180 days after the Diet vote. Under this rule, the Diet would have to vote on a constitutional amendment bill by the 2024 ordinary Diet session if a national referendum is to be held before Kishida’s party presidential term expires. The LDP is therefore considering a timeline to create a draft bill for a constitutional amendment with other political parties before the end of 2023.
There are four proposed amendments, including one to recognize the Self-Defense Forces in the Constitution.
Another proposed amendment, to which the LDP plans to give top priority, would create an emergency clause. On that proposal, four parties — the LDP and its ruling coalition partner Komeito, plus Nippon Ishin no Kai ( Japan Innovation Party) and the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP) — agreed on the need to extend the terms of Diet members during natural disasters and other emergencies at the Commission on the Constitution of the House of Representatives during last year’s extraordinary Diet session.
While opinions remained divided on the extension period and conditions for the extension, a senior LDP official said, “This proposal is the most practical one where there is room for compromise with various opposition parties.”
In order to start to draft a constitutional amendment and begin related procedures, active discussions in the Diet are essential. Last year, it became regular for the Commission on the Constitution of both houses to hold a weekly meeting on a certain day of a week during the ordinary Diet session, and the practice continued during the extraordinary Diet session as well. Twenty official deliberations at the lower house’s commission and eight at the upper house’s were held over the past year, both the highest numbers in the past five years.
Behind the growing momentum is the fact that Nippon Ishin and the DPFP, both calling for active debates on constitutional amendments, have more power than before, which forced the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), which was originally cautious toward holding meetings of the Commission on the Constitution of both chambers, to participate in the deliberations. In this year’s ordinary Diet session, the LDP will cooperate with Nippon Ishin and the DPFP to have the commissions hold active discussions.
However, the CDPJ and the Japanese Communist Party are negative about proceeding with concrete procedures for constitutional amendments and are believed to be against narrowing down the items for amendments. At the upcoming ordinary session, there are many topics that opposition parties are likely to bring up, such as nuclear policy and tax increases for enhancing defense capabilities.
One LDP member said, “If the [Cabinet’s] approval rating remains low, I wonder if the government will have to give constitutional amendments a lower priority.”