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The Australian National University

Questions about Japan’s constitution after 70 years

1 May 2017

Author: Editors, East Asia Forum

The 70th anniversary of Japan’s constitution on Wednesday 3 May has piqued global interest in the contentious debate around the Abe administration’s proposals for the constitution’s revision. Some call for modernisation of the document, but there is also widespread concern that the changes being pursued by the Abe government are borne out of an ideological rather than a practical policy agenda for change. Most Japanese voters wish Abe would get on with fixing the economy rather than messing with the constitution.

Historically, the 1947 constitution was surrounded in controversy because it was drafted under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur when Japan was under US-led occupation. But the Japanese mainstream came to embrace it and continues to celebrate the liberal political ideals that it upholds — sovereignty of the people, respect for human rights, and the renunciation of war. 

The pre-war Meiji constitution vested sovereignty in the emperor, whereas the 1947 constitution vests sovereignty in the people, including for the first time universal suffrage for women. The Meiji constitution qualified rights within limits not prejudicial to peace and order, and not antagonistic to citizen’s duties as subjects. The 1947 constitution emphasises human rights, the equality of all before the law and non-discrimination on the basis of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin. The Meiji constitution left open the door for the military to hijack Japan’s political system and go down its disastrous warpath. The 1947 constitution’s Article 9 peace clause renounces war and ‘the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes’.

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