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Referendum law kicks in as few show interest in change

Date Posted: 2010-05-21

A National Referendum Law that paves the way for amending Japan’s Constitution kicked in Tuesday, but hardly anyone noticed.

Those that are tracking the new law, which was instituted in 2007 by the then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, sets the stage for debate and a referendum on changing Japan’s Constitution that’s been in effect since 1947, shortly after World War II ended. Any changes to the constitution require a two-third approval of both Diet chambers before heading to voters in a national referendum.

When Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party coined the law, much talk had been on changing parts of the constitution to permit a more hawkish approach to the country’s military stance. In years leading to the 2007 law, much talk had been bantered about on eliminating or changing Article 9 of the constitution, which renounces war. In the years since, little has been mentioned about modifying the constitution.

Should the interest become evident, the law stipulates any proposal must be supported by more than 100 Lower House members or 50 Upper House lawmakers. Once a bill passes the Diet, it goes to the public in a referendum. All citizens age 18 and older may vote, with balloting done 60-180 days after the bill’s approval by the Diet.

With the Democratic Party of Japan now in power, most constitutional analysts say there’s little probability of a pressure for change, particularly on Article 9. The Social Democratic Party, one of the DPJ’s junior coalition partners, is adamantly dovish. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama says “progress is sluggish” on creation of constitutional research panels that would pave the way for bills heading to the Diet. Mizuho Fukushima, head of the SDP, says she’ll oppose any moves toward constitutional change. “I will not allow the Diet chambers constitutional research panels to get under way,” she said during a rally earlier this month.

One additional confusing factor centers on the age of potential voters. The law says all Japanese 18 and over are eligible to vote, despite the fact Japan’s legal voting age is 20. Debate to change the voting age is problematic, with concerns that modifying the voting age would also include changes to many civil liberties areas, including the legal age to drink and smoke.

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