The constitution was drawn up under the Allied occupation that followed World War II and was intended to replace Japan's previous militaristic absolute monarchy system with a form of liberal democracy. Currently, it is a rigid document and no subsequent amendment has been made to it since its adoption.
The Constitution of the Empire of Japan of 1889, more commonly known as the "Meiji Constitution" or "Imperial Constitution", was the first modern constitution of Japan. Enacted as part of the Meiji Renewal, it provided for a form of constitutional monarchy based on the Prussian model. In effect, the Emperor of Japan would appear to be an active ruler wielding considerable political power, but in fact would be wholly supported and controlled by the Cabinet, whose Prime Minister would be elected by the Privy Council. Under its terms, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet were not necessarily chosen from the elected members of the Diet. Pursuing the regular amending procedure of the "Meiji Constitution", it was entirely revised to become the Peace Constitution on November 3, 1946. The Peace Constitution has been in force since May 3, 1947.
On 26 July, 1945, Allied leaders Winston Churchill, Harry S Truman, and Chiang Kai-Shek issued the Potsdam Declaration, which demanded Japan's unconditional surrender. This declaration also defined the major goals of the postsurrender Allied occupation: "The Japanese government shall remove all obstacles to the revival and strengthening of democratic tendencies among the Japanese people. Freedom of speech, of religion, and of thought, as well as respect for the fundamental human rights shall be established" (Section 10). In addition, the document stated: "The occupying forces of the Allies shall be withdrawn from Japan as soon as these objectives have been accomplished and there has been established in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people a peacefully inclined and responsible government" (Section 12). The Allies sought not merely punishment or reparations from a militaristic foe, but fundamental changes in the nature of its political system. In the words of political scientist Robert E. Ward: "The occupation was perhaps the single most exhaustively planned operation of massive and externally directed political change in world history."
The wording of the Potsdam Declaration—"The Japanese Government shall remove all obstacles..."—and the initial postsurrender measures taken by Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), suggest that neither he nor his superiors in Washington intended to impose a new political system on Japan unilaterally. Instead, they wished to encourage Japan's new leaders to initiate democratic reforms on their own. But by early 1946, MacArthur's staff and Japanese officials were at odds over the most fundamental issue, the writing of a new constitution. Emperor Showa, Prime Minister Shidehara Kijuro and most of the cabinet members were extremely reluctant to take the drastic step of replacing the 1889 Meiji Constitution with a more liberal document. In late 1945, Shidehara appointed Joji Matsumoto, state minister without portfolio, head of a blue-ribbon committee of constitutional scholars to suggest revisions. The Matsumoto Commission's recommendations, made public in February 1946, were quite conservative (described by one Japanese scholar in the late 1980s as "no more than a touching-up of the Meiji Constitution"). MacArthur rejected them outright and ordered his staff to draft a completely new document.
Much of it was drafted by two senior army officers with law degrees: Milo Rowell and Courtney Whitney. The articles about equality between men and women are reported to be written by Beate Sirota. Although the document's authors were non-Japanese, they took into account the Meiji Constitution, the demands of Japanese lawyers, and the opinions of pacifist political leaders such as Shidehara and Yoshida Shigeru. The draft was presented to surprised Japanese officials on 13 February, 1946. On 6 March, 1946, the government publicly disclosed an outline of the pending constitution. On 10 April elections were held to the House of Representatives of the Ninetieth Imperial Diet, which would consider the proposed constitution. The election law having been changed, this was the first general election in Japan in which women were permitted to vote.
The MacArthur draft, which proposed a unicameral legislature, was changed at the insistence of the Japanese to allow a bicameral legislature, both houses being elected. In most other important respects, however, the ideas embodied in the 13 February document were adopted by the government in its own draft proposal of 6 March. These included the constitution's most distinctive features: the symbolic role of the Emperor, the prominence of guarantees of civil and human rights, and the renunciation of war.
It was decided that in adopting the new document the Meiji Constitution would not be violated, but rather legal continuity would be maintained. Thus the 1946 constitution was adopted as an amendment to the Meiji Constitution in accordance with the provisions of Article 73 of that document. Under Article 73 the new constitution was formally submitted to the Imperial Diet by the Emperor, through an imperial rescript issued on 20 June. The draft constitution was submitted and deliberated upon as the Bill for Revision of the Imperial Constitution. The old constitution required that the bill receive the support of a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet in order to become law. After both chambers had made some amendments the House of Peers approved the document on 6 October; it was adopted in the same form by the House of Representatives the following day, with only five members voting against, and finally became law when it received the Emperor's assent on 3 November. Under its own terms the constitution came into effect six months later on 3 May, 1947.
The new constitution would not have been written the way it was had MacArthur and his staff allowed Japanese politicians and constitutional experts to resolve the issue as they wished. The document's foreign origins have, understandably, been a focus of controversy since Japan recovered its sovereignty in 1952. Yet in late 1945 and 1946, there was much public discussion on constitutional reform, and the MacArthur draft was apparently greatly influenced by the ideas of certain Japanese liberals. The MacArthur draft did not attempt to impose a United States-style presidential or federal system. Instead, the proposed constitution conformed to the British model of parliamentary government, which was seen by the liberals as the most viable alternative to the European absolutism of the Meiji Constitution.
After 1952 conservatives and nationalists attempted to revise the constitution to make it more "Japanese", but these attempts were frustrated for a number of reasons. One was the extreme difficulty of amending it. Amendments require approval by two-thirds of the members of both houses of the National Diet before they can be presented to the people in a referendum (Article 96). Also, opposition parties, occupying more than one-third of the Diet seats, were firm supporters of the constitutional status quo. Even for members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the constitution was advantageous. They had been able to fashion a policy-making process congenial to their interests within its framework. Yasuhiro Nakasone, a strong advocate of constitutional revision during much of his political career, for example, downplayed the issue while serving as prime minister between 1982 and 1987.
The constitution contains a firm declaration of the principle of popular sovereignty in the preamble. This is proclaimed in the name of the "Japanese people" and declares that "sovereign power resides with the people" and
Part of the purpose of this language is to refute the previous constitutional theory that sovereignty resided in the Emperor. The constitution asserts that the Emperor is merely a symbol and that he derives "his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power" (Article 1). The text of the constitution also asserts the liberal doctrine of fundamental human rights. In particular Article 97 states that
The constitution establishes a parliamentary system of government. The Emperor carries out most of the functions of a head of state but his role is merely ceremonial and, unlike the forms of constitutional monarchy found in some other nations, he possesses no reserve powers. Legislative authority is vested in a bicameral National Diet and, whereas previously the upper house had consisted of members of the nobility, the new constitution provided that both chambers be directly elected. Executive authority is exercised by a Prime Minister and cabinet answerable to the legislature, while the judiciary is headed by a Supreme Court.
The constitution has not been amended once since its 1947 enactment. Article 96 provides that amendments can be made to any part of the constitution. However, a proposed amendment must first be approved by both houses of the Diet, by at least a super majority of two-thirds of each house (rather than just a simple majority). It must then be submitted to a referendum in which it is sufficient for it to be endorsed by a simple majority of votes cast. A successful amendment is finally promulgated by the Emperor, but the monarch cannot veto an amendment.
Some commentators have suggested that the difficulty of the amendment process was favoured by the constitution's American authors from a desire that the fundamentals of the regime they had imposed would be resistant to change. However, among Japanese themselves, any change to the document and to the post-war settlement it embodies is highly controversial. From the 1960s to the 1980s, constitutional revision was rarely debated In the 1990s, right-leaning and conservative voices broke some taboos , for example, when the Yomiuri Shimbun published a suggestion for constitutional revision in 1994 This period saw a number of right-leaning groups forming to aggressively push for constitutional revision, but also a significant number of organizations and individuals speaking out against revision and in support of "the peace constitution."
The debate has been highly polarized. The most controversial issues are proposed changes to Article 9, the "peace article" and provisions relating to the role of the Emperor. Progressive, left, center-left and peace movement related individuals and organizations, as well as the opposition parties , labor and youth groups advocate keeping (and even strengthening) the existing constitution in these areas, while right-leaning, nationalist and/or conservative groups and individuals advocate changes to increase the prestige of the Emperor (though not granting him political powers) and to allow a more aggressive stance of the self-defense force, e.g. by turning it officially into a military. Others areas of the constitution and connected laws discussed for potential revision relate to the status of women, the eduation system and the system of public corporations (including social welfare, non-profit and religious organizations as well as foundations), and structural reform of the election process, e.g. to allow for direct election of the prime minister There are countless grassroots groups, associations, NGOs, think tanks, scholars, and politicians speaking out in favor of one or the other side of the issue
In August 2005, the then Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, proposed an amendment to the constitution in order to increase Japan's Defence Forces' roles in international affairs. A draft of the proposed constitution was released by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on 22 November, 2005 as part of the fiftieth anniversary of the party's founding. The proposed changes included:
This draft fanned the debate, with strong opposition coming even from non-governmental organisations of other countries, as well as established and newly formed grassroots Japanese organisations, such as Save Article 9. Per the current constitution, a proposal for constitutional changes must be passed by a two-thirds vote in the Diet, then be put to a national referendum. However, there was in 2005 no legislation in place for such a referendum.
Koizumi's successor, Shinzo Abe vowed to push aggressively for constitutional revision. A major step toward this was getting legislation passed to allow for a national referendum in April 2007 However, by that time there was little public support for changing the constitution, with a survey showing 34.5 percent of Japanese not wanting any changes, 44.5 percent wanting no changes to Article 9, and 54.6 percent supporting the current interpretation on self-defense On the 60th anniversary of the constitution, on May 3, 2007, thousands took to the streets in support of Article 9 The Chief Cabinet secretary and other top government officials interpreted the survey to mean that the public wants a pacifist Constitution that renounces war, and may need to be better informed about the details of the revision debate The legislation passed by parliament specifies that a referendum on constitutional reform could take place at the earliest in 2010, and would need approval from a majority of voters.
International bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and groups such as Amnesty International have argued that many of the guarantees for individual rights contained in the Japanese constitution have not been effective in practice. Such critics have also argued that, contrary to Article 98, and its requirement that international law be treated as part of the domestic law of the state, human rights treaties to which Japan is a party are seldom enforced in Japanese courts.
Despite constitutional guarantees of the right to a fair trial, conviction rates in Japan approach 99%. In one study, the conviction rate in contested Japanese trials in 1994 was found to be 98.8%, while the comparable conviction rate in contested United States federal trials in 1994 was 30.9%. This was found to be due to the limited budgets for prosecutors in Japan compared to the United States, leading them to prosecute only the most solid cases. Bias by judges was found not to be a factor.
Article 38 also bans coerced confessions. However, the constitution and criminal procedure law permits: 72 hours of confinement, with limited access to an attorney, before indictment of a suspect arrested by police, and 48 hours if arrested by a prosecutor. In spite of Article 36's prohibition of torture and cruel punishments, the unusual form of strict regimentation found in Japanese prisons is widely held to be degrading and inhumane.