News / Asia

    Japan PM's 'Stealth' Constitution Plan Raises Civil Rights Fears

    Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2013 photo)
    Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2013 photo)
    Reuters
    Shinzo Abe makes no secret of wanting to revise Japan's constitution, which was drafted by the United States after World War II, to formalize the country's right to have a military - but critics say his plans go deeper and could return Japan to its socially conservative, authoritarian past.
           
    Abe, 58, returned to office in December for a second term as prime minister and is enjoying sky-high support on the back of his "Abenomics'' recipe for reviving the economy through hyper-easy monetary policy, big spending and structural reform.
           
    Now he is seeking to lower the hurdle for revising the constitution as a prelude to an historic change to its pacifist Article 9 - which, if strictly read, bans any military. That would be a symbolic shift, loosening restrictions on the military's overseas activities, but would have limited impact on defence as the clause has already been stretched to allow Tokyo to build up armed forces that are now bigger than Britain's.
           
    However, sweeping changes proposed by Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in a draft constitution would strike at the heart of the charter with an assault on basic civil rights that could muzzle the media, undermine gender equality and generally open the door to an authoritarian state, activists and scholars say.

    Restrictions, restraints

    "What I find strange is that although the prime minister is not that old, he is trying to revive the mores of his grandfather's era,'' said Ryo Motoo, the octogenarian head of  the Women's Article 9 Association, a group devoted to protecting the constitution. "I fear this might lead to a society full of restrictions, one that does not recognize diversity of opinions and puts restraints on the freedom of speech as in the past.''
           
    Abe's grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was a pre-World War II cabinet minister who was arrested but never tried as a war criminal. Kishi served as premier from 1957-60, when he resigned due to a furor over a U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.
           
    Riding high in the opinion polls and buoyed by big stock market gains, Abe has grown more outspoken about his conservative agenda, including revising the constitution and being less apologetic about Japan's wartime past - a stance that has frayed already tense relations with China and South Korea, where memories of Tokyo's past militarism run deep.
           
    Many Japanese conservatives see the constitution, unchanged since its adoption in 1947 during the U.S.-led Allied Occupation, as an embodiment of Western-style, individualistic mores they believe eroded Japan's group-oriented traditions.
          
    Rights vs. duties
           
    Critics see Abe's plan to ease requirements for revising the charter and then seek to change Article 9 as a "stealth'' strategy that keeps his deeper aims off the public radar.
           
    "The real concern is that a couple of years later, we move to a redefinition of a 'new Japan' as an authoritarian, nationalist order,'' said Yale University law professor Bruce Ackerman.
           
    The LDP draft, approved by the party last year, would negate the basic concept of universal human rights, which Japanese conservatives argue is a Western notion ill-suited to Japan's traditional culture and values, constitutional scholars say.
           
    "The current constitution ... provides protection for a long list of fundamental rights - freedom of expression, freedom of religion,'' said Meiji University professor Lawrence Repeta. "It's clear the leaders of the LDP and certain other politicians in Japan ... are passionately against a system that protects individual rights to that degree.''
           
    The draft deletes a guarantee of basic human rights and prescribes duties, such as submission to an undefined "public interest and public order''. The military would be empowered to maintain that "public order.''
           
    One proposal would ban anyone from "improperly'' acquiring or using information about individuals - a clause experts say could limit freedom of speech. A reference to respect for the "family'' as the basic social unit hints, say critics, at a revival of a patriarchal system that gave women few rights.
           
    "The constitution is there to tie the hands of government, not put duties on the people,'' said Taro Kono, an LDP lawmaker  often at odds with his party on policies. "There are some in both houses [of parliament] who don't really understand the role of a modern constitution.''
         
    Written by humans
     
    Abe and the LDP say easing the revision procedures would allow voters a bigger say in whether to alter the charter.
           
    "The constitution is not something given by God, it was written by human beings. It should not be frightening to change it so I'd like the people to consider trying it once,'' Yosuke Isozaki, an aide to Abe, told the Nikkei business daily.
           
    Under Article 96, changes to the constitution must be approved by at least two-thirds of both houses of parliament and then a majority of voters in a national referendum. Abe wants to require a simple majority of lawmakers before a public vote.
           
    With Abe's popularity high and the main opposition splintered, the LDP and smaller pro-revision parties appear to have a shot at winning a two-thirds majority in an upper house election in July. They already hold two-thirds of the lower house.
           
    "It's not as easy as it might appear,'' said Sophia University political science professor Koichi Nakano. "But for the first time, it's a realistic prospect.''
           
    Japan celebrates Constitution Day on Friday.

    You May Like

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Before burial at overflowing cemeteries, unidentified dead being swapped for DNA, in case some day relatives come to learn their fate

    Russian Opposition Leader Sues Putin for Conflict of Interest

    Alexei Navalny tells VOA in exclusive interview why transfer of $2 billion from country’s wealth fund to company with ties to President Putin’s son-in-law triggered lawsuit

    How Diversity Has Changed America

    Over the past four decades, the level of diversity in the United States has increased most in these four states

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Filli
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 11, 2016 8:01 PM
    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video US Co-ed Selective Service Plan Stirs Controversy

    Young women may soon be required to register with the U.S. Selective Service System, the U.S. government agency charged with implementing a draft in a national emergency. Top Army and Marine Corps commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that women should register, and a bill has been introduced in Congress requiring eligible women to sign up for the military draft. The issue is stirring some controversy, as VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Lessons Learned From Ebola Might Help Fight Zika

    Now that the Ebola epidemic has ended in West Africa, Zika has the world's focus. And, as Carol Pearson reports, health experts and governments are applying some of the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis in Africa to fight the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Illinois Voters Have Mixed Emotions on Obama’s Return to Springfield

    On the ninth anniversary of the launch of his quest for national office, President Barack Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois, to speak to the Illinois General Assembly, where he once served as state senator. His visit was met with mixed emotions by those with a front-row seat on his journey to the White House. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Heated Immigration Debate Limits Britain’s Refugee Response

    Compared to many other European states, Britain has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. Just over a thousand have arrived so far -- and some are being resettled in remote corners of the country. Henry Ridgwell reports on why Britain’s response has lagged behind its neighbors.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.