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Constitution Day feted, fought over

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Japan’s pacifist Constitution is at a crossroads as the 67th anniversary of its taking effect was celebrated around the country on Saturday.

The charter has never been amended since it entered into force in 1947, but the Diet is paving the way for potential revisions and is slated to enact a law to lower the national referendum voting age to 18 from 20 this year.

Although more parties in both the ruling and opposition camps concede the necessity of revising the Constitution in accordance with the needs of the times, they are divided as to whether Japan should be able to exercise the right to collective self-defense without such amendment.

While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to announce Japan can exercise that right — with Cabinet approval, after a private advisory panel submits a report on collective self-defense in mid-May — his ruling Liberal Democratic Party is now pushing for “limited” collective self-defense scenarios under which Japan could defend the United States, its primary ally, to help ease the concerns of junior coalition partner New Komeito.

“Collective self-defense falls under the minimum necessity for self-defense,” LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura argued on an NHK program on Saturday.

The LDP’s limited collective-self-defense concept was put on the table in an apparent attempt to win over New Komeito, as the two parties will expedite their discussions on the issue this week. Yet LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba also noted in Washington on Friday that the concept can be expanded because such limitations might not be able to deal with a fluctuating security environment.

Forced to engage in a delicate balancing act, New Komeito released a statement Saturday to mark Constitution Day, saying a reinterpretation of the charter requires more careful discussion as to why and how it should be changed, as well as how this will affect the livelihoods of Japanese citizens and, more broadly, the global community.

“We are not necessarily against a reinterpretation,” New Komeito Vice President Kazuo Kitagawa told the NHK program. “But we need to have a clear standard if we recognize limited collective self-defense.

“There are cases we can deal with by exercising individual self-defense or policing activities,” said Kitagawa, implying that Japan can shoot down missiles flying over its territory without resorting to collective defense.

Opposition parties are also divided on the issue.

The Democratic Party of Japan said in a statement Saturday that there is room for reinterpreting the Constitution to reflect the changing security situation, but that constitutionality will be violated if the government changes the charter at its convenience.

Yet the DPJ has failed to achieve a consensus. While party leader Banri Kaieda is generally against reinterpretation, Akihisa Nagashima, who served as senior vice defense minister under the Cabinet of Yoshihiko Noda, told U.S. Sen. John McCain last month in Washington that there is wide support for the LDP on this issue.

Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) decided in April to support Abe’s push for reinterpretation, as well as other constitutional revisions, such as directly electing the prime minister. Your Party also does not oppose Abe’s position.

Among opponents of reinterpretation, Kenji Eda, leader of Yui no To, said Japan should consider how to cope with current and future security demands without modifying war-renouncing Article 9, and Seikatsu no To (People’s Life Party) President Ichiro Ozawa is also against the proposal if the aim is to permit collective self-defense.

The Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party both oppose any attempt to revise Article 9 and exercise collective self-defense.

Among the public, recent opinion polls show less support for revising the Constitution compared with a year ago.

According to an NHK survey of 1,600 people last month, 28 percent of respondents said Article 9 should be amended, down 14 points from the previous year. Those who do not want the charter revised accounted for 26 percent, up 10 points, while 40 percent were neutral on the issue.

As for collective self-defense, the same NHK poll found slightly more people are against Japan exercising the right. Thirty-four percent said the nation should exercise it either by amending or reinterpreting the Constitution, while 41 percent said Japan should not exercise the right at all.