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Reconsidering Article 9 / Putting issue to referendum fraught with risks

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Yomiuri ShimbunThis is the third installment of a series.

As moves toward a constitutional amendment gather pace, concern is spreading in the government and ruling parties that holding a national referendum runs the risk of the idea being rejected.

Kiyomi Tsujimoto of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) touched on this during a session of the House of Representatives Commission on the Constitution on Nov. 30. “If the amendment proposal is defeated, what on earth will happen to public sentiment and social consensus about the Self-Defense Forces?” Tsujimoto asked.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is also president of the Liberal Democratic Party, has proposed adding to the Constitution a clause that provides constitutional grounds for the SDF while upholding paragraphs 1 and 2 of Article 9. This is intended to make it clear that the SDF is not unconstitutional.

If this amendment proposal were defeated in a referendum, what exactly would be rejected? Would this lead not only to the amendment not being allowed, but also to the rejection of the SDF’s constitutionality? Would it even mean the rejection of the security-related laws, for which the government changed its constitutional interpretation to allow it to exercise the right of collective self-defense in a limited manner? Discussions like this have started to brew beneath the surface.

The SDF is the foundation of Japan’s security. It has about 220,000 members, comprising ground, maritime and air personnel, and a fleet of 134 ships and 400 aircraft. The SDF keeps watch over the Japanese archipelago, which consists of about 6,800 islands, and builds cooperative relationships with the U.S. military and other national armed forces.

Government officials believe a rejection of a constitutional amendment clearly specifying the existence of the SDF would be a major event that could not only cause the Cabinet to collapse, but also shake this country’s security and the foundations of the nation’s existence.

Explanation needed

Referendums in European countries in 2016 have influenced Japan’s moves toward constitutional amedments. In Britain, where its people were asked whether the country should leave the European Union, Brexit supporters exceeded pro-EU voters by a narrow margin. Prime Minister David Cameron, who had led the national referendum, ended up resigning. In Italy, constitutional amendment to reduce the authority of the senate was rejected.

Komeito’s Kazuo Kitagawa, who joined a research team of the lower house’s top law commission to Europe in July last year, analyzed the difficulties of a popular vote. “First, it tends to become a vote of confidence for the government at the time. Second, it is not easy to form and maintain an agreement among political parties. Third, it is no easy task to make the public understand the details of the constitutional amendment.”

What is going through Komeito executives’ minds is the resistance that opposition parties developed to the security-related laws. If constitutional amendment is initiated with the support of two-thirds or more of each house of the Diet, there will be another 60 to 180 days until the national referendum. If resistance develops as it did with the security-related laws, the outcome of the popular vote will be unpredictable.

Abe is said to have told people close to him: “If this amendment is rejected in a referendum, I’ll have to resign. But I won’t take a defeatist attitude.”

However, moves that underline such concerns have already emerged. CDPJ leader Yukio Edano clarified his stance against constitutional amendment by connecting the issue with the security-related laws during a lower house plenary session on Nov. 20. “If we specify the SDF in the Constitution on the premise of the security-related laws, we’ll end up approving the violation of constitutionalism with no debate. There is no way this can be permitted,” Edano said.

Another senior CDPJ member said, “If the LDP forces this proposal through, it will be rejected in a national referendum, and this means the security-related laws would also be rejected.”

Cameron is said to have advised the Japanese research team that the popular vote must be won not only through theoretical discussions, but also on an emotional level. He also placed importance on making the public understand they will be the ones to decide whether the Constitution will be amended.Speech

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