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2008年5月 5日 (月)


(May. 5, 2008)

EDITORIAL: The Constitution today


What a difference a year makes. Witness the dramatic shift in the political landscape surrounding the Constitution. Saturday was Constitution Day, marking the 61st anniversary of the day it took effect.


Remember last year at this time? Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had made amending the Constitution a central issue in the campaign for the Upper House election that July. His government, in fact, enacted a law on the formal procedures for constitutional referendums as part of his strategy. Abe also set up an advisory panel to reexamine the government's long-held constitutional interpretation of the right to collective self-defense.


Today, political momentum to amend the Constitution, which lay behind these initiatives, has completely disappeared. In clear contrast with Abe, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda shows little enthusiasm for revising the Constitution. Fukuda has also shelved the proposed review of the government's position on the issue of Japan's right to collective self-defense.


Polls have shown the public is now less willing to embrace changes in the pacifist Constitution. A recent survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun, the leading newspaper championing the cause, found that respondents opposed to constitutional amendments outnumbered those in favor of them for the first time since 1993. An Asahi Shimbun poll showed 66 percent of respondents were opposed to altering the war-renouncing Article 9, compared with 23 percent who said they supported the idea.


The argument for revising the Constitution began to gain momentum in the 1990s, mainly because of pro-amendment campaigns by some voices in the media and politicians. But opinion polls consistently showed that pocketbook issues, such as business conditions and pensions, topped the list of voters' concerns. The issue of constitutional amendments consistently ranked lower in priority.


It looks like the public's interest in revising the Constitution has declined in tandem with a lessening in politicians' zeal for revising the Constitution over the past year. The change was partly due to the U.S. fiasco in Iraq, which has doused public interest in the issue.


It is, of course, possible that a revision of Article 9 will reemerge as a big topic of policy debate in Tokyo amid a political realignment. But currently, the political mood clearly suggests that any uncompromising argument for changing the Constitution, especially the kind made by advocates who would like to see the Self-Defense Forces act as conventional military forces do, cuts little ice with the public.


Growing poor amid such wealth


Last year, while fierce political debate raged over Article 9, more serious issues with constitutional implications emerged that escaped large public attention.


Economic globalization, which has advanced at a heady pace, and the explosive spread of the Internet and cellphones have radically altered society. The new realities created by these changes pose serious policy challenges that went beyond the scope of the traditional debate on the Constitution.

For example, consider the growing ranks of a new underclass of society, the "working poor."



Intensifying cross-border competition has driven companies to make desperate efforts to cut labor costs. As a consequence, the number of nonregular, temporary workers, which includes both part-timers and dispatched workers, has grown sharply in recent years. Such workers now comprise a third of the working population.


Such workers face higher job insecurity and low wages, which leaves an increasing number of them with no choice but to claim welfare benefits.


Admittedly, some workers have only themselves to blame for their miserable financial situations. In today's society, people have far weaker ties with others than in the past, and many individuals find themselves isolated. Once an isolated individual falls into poverty, it is usually very difficult to climb back out of that hole.


In the decades after the end of World War II, Japanese people worked very hard to build a wealthy society.

Just as that goal appeared to have been achieved, however, a huge hole opened in Japan's social safety net.


This spring, an "anti-poverty festival" was held in Tokyo. The event featured a musical stage show that depicted the plight of the "new poor."

The play's opening scene was set in a cramped Internet cafe, filled with young people who were basically living there. Each spoke up about their anxieties and daily hardships as they were clicking away on keyboards.



One of them had collapsed from overwork. Another lost his job when his employer went bankrupt--and never paid him all his wages. Another character, a young man, was struggling to escape from a life of temporary day jobs.


At the end of the play, all the characters recited a passage from the Constitution: which states: "All people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living." This sentence is the first in Article 25.

The characters thus strongly expressed the wide gap between what the Constitution promises and reality for the working poor.



Freedom of speech under threat


In a democratic society, anyone should be able to speak out freely. The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. Living in a country with a militarist past, all Japanese would agree that freedom of speech must be protected at all cost.

But recent events have raised concerns that this vital constitutional principle may be under threat.


In February, a luxury hotel in Tokyo's Minato Ward unilaterally canceled its contract to provide a venue for a meeting of the Japan Teachers Union. The hotel management, worried about protests from rightist groups, even refused to obey a court order to honor the contract, after its action had been judged illegal.


Last month, several movie theaters said they would not screen "Yasukuni," a documentary film on the war-linked shrine by a Tokyo-based Chinese director. They did so after a group of conservative lawmakers expressed doubts about a government-affiliated organization that partly funded the film.


The anonymity of the Internet makes it a double-edged sword. This medium gives people a powerful way of reaching global numbers of people. But it enables people to slander, harass and violate the privacy of others through irresponsible postings. Such actions seriously threaten freedom and human rights.


We have yet to find the wisdom and means of protecting freedoms and rights in this new reality.


Meanwhile, several scandals also raised doubts about whether government employees, which the Constitution calls "servants of the whole community," are performing their roles properly. The scandals that hit the Social Insurance Agency and the Defense Ministry suggest otherwise. The government employees in the scandals apparently acted in ways that went against the spirit of the Constitution.


The Constitution is the fundamental law of the nation. It lays down the basic rights of the people. Obviously, it is important for all Japanese to ponder afresh its grave importance in their lives.


How should people's livelihoods be protected amid such circumstances? What should be done to ensure that no one is intimidated and prevented from expressing their opinions? We must not flinch from looking at the wide, deep gap between what the Constitution guarantees and reality today.


The Constitution points the way toward changing that unhappy reality and creating a better society for all. This perspective is essential for truly constructive debate on the Constitution.


--The Asahi Shimbun, May 3(IHT/Asahi: May 5,2008)

朝日新聞 5月3日 (英文翻訳 2008年5月5日)


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