In late September, the people of Scotland may vote to break their 300-year-old union with England and become an independent nation again. If British Prime Minister David Cameron wins the next general election, there will soon be another referendum -- this time to decide whether Britain remains in the European Union.
In each case, passions run high and public opinion is fully engaged. Both issues will be settled by a simple majority of votes cast and opponents will be expected to respect the result.
Over the centuries, Britain has developed a classic form of representative democracy under a bicameral parliamentary system. It has been hugely influential. Even the Founding Fathers of the United States looked to the British example when crafting the world's first written constitution.
Now, according to Vernon Bogdanor, a doyen of British constitutional scholars, the various innovations of the past 40 years mean that a "new British constitution" is taking shape. A key feature is that on certain fundamental issues, a third organ of legislature has the crucial voice -- public opinion, as revealed by referendum.
The contrast with Japan could not be greater. Japan's constitution was imposed by the U.S. occupation authorities in 1947 with almost no input from the Japanese people. Successive Japanese governments have followed the path of "reinterpreting" inconvenient provisions -- notably Article 9, which bars "land, sea and air forces as well as other war potential" -- also with no public consultation. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent greenlighting of "collective self-defense" is merely the latest in a line of reinterpretations that have stretched the constitution to a breaking point.
Like no other nation
Written constitutions are strange artifacts, though nearly all countries have them. Their purpose is to limit the power of future governments by embedding certain principles and procedures believed to have lasting validity. By definition, constitutional provisions must be more difficult to change than ordinary laws -- which is why gun control in the U.S. is impossible to achieve.
Yet constitutions do need to change with the times, as Thomas Jefferson himself recognized. "No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law," he wrote.
According to University College London's Comparative Constitutions Project, every year approximately five constitutions are replaced and 30 are amended.
Japan's constitutional "virginity" is unique even among the defeated nations of World War II. The Italian constitution has been amended 15 times in the postwar period. The Germans have amended their basic law 50 times, adding provisions that established the Bundeswehr armed forces and introduced conscription as long back as 1956. In both countries, the original drafting was done by local experts and reflected national traditions. Naturally, no equivalent of Japan's Article 9 was included.
Why the special treatment for Japan? Was there a racist assumption that Japan was inherently more aggressive than the countries that produced the Nazis and Benito Mussolini? Or was it a question of geopolitical strategy? Whatever the cause, Japan found itself constrained in a way no other nation has ever experienced.
Until recently that did not matter much. During the Cold War, Japan sheltered under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, secure in the knowledge that it was a crucial ally against the Soviet Union. Now, confronted by an expansionist China, a fickle and inward-looking U.S. and dynamic changes in Asian geopolitics, Japan needs to maximize its options. In terms of alliance-building, contributions to multinational security efforts and power projection, it needs to become "normal."
The power to change
Historically, constitutional reform in Japan has been a cause pushed by conservative forces who seemed eager to return to the authoritarianism of the Meiji constitution crafted in the late 19th century. Some of this thinking is reflected in various drafts proposed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Meanwhile, progressives seem trapped in a bubble of idealism in which pacifism remains a viable geopolitical strategy. Each side claims to represent public opinion. Which is right? Probably neither.
What Japan needs is a pragmatic approach to constitutional reform that involves an in-depth national conversation, encompassing all shades of opinion, expert and nonexpert. Most important, the people themselves should wield the ultimate decision-making power, as will happen in Scotland on Sept. 18. Article 96 of the Japanese constitution sets out the procedure for amendment -- a two-thirds majority in both houses, as well as validation by referendum. The major political parties could simply agree among themselves to accept the balance of public opinion, thus nullifying the supermajority requirement.
Wouldn't this transgress the principle of representative parliamentary democracy? Maybe, but as Bogdanor explains, public attitudes to politicians are rapidly changing. People have become better informed and less deferential. On fundamental issues, they are as competent as their leaders, and they know it. Japan is hardly different, as can be seen from comments on online bulletin boards and the low support for the major political parties.
"The voice of the people is the voice of heaven" is a saying well-known in both the West and East -- vox populi vox Dei, in Latin, and tensei jingo, in Japanese. If Britain can lend an ear, so can Japan. In other words, unless Japanese politicians consider their voters less worthy of respect than the British electorate, they should step aside and let them speak.
Peter Tasker is an analyst with Arcus Research in Tokyo.