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Japan’s defense-only posture to ‘basically’ remain unchanged under proposed constitutional change, Suga says

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Staff Writer

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday that Japan’s security policies, including its exclusively defensive posture, would “basically remain the same” if the Constitution is revised as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed last week.

Suga’s remark indicates Abe is backing away from a radical constitutional revision proposed by his Liberal Democratic Party in 2012, in an apparent maneuver to lower the political hurdles to his long-held ambition to revise the pacifist postwar Constitution.

The LDP’s 2012 draft would allow Japan to use military force in a more aggressive way, including the full-fledged exercise of the right to collective self-defense and participation in United Nations-authorized military operations as defined under the U.N. Charter.

Last Wednesday, Abe said in an interview with the daily Yomiuri Shimbun that he wants to add to war-renouncing Article 9 a paragraph that legitimizes the Self-Defense Forces, while keeping the rest of the article unchanged.

At a news conference Monday, Suga claimed that Abe doesn’t intend to use the constitutional revision to change Japan’s defense policies in any substantive way.

“The government’s view (on defense issues) has been consistently the same,” he said.

If Suga’s description of Abe’s intentions is accurate, it probably means the prime minister is now trying to revise the Constitution in only a symbolic way, so that in refraining from making drastic changes to Japan’s defense policies he will lower political opposition to constitutional reform.

Abe has long argued that the Constitution, imposed by the United States following Japan’s surrender in World War II, should be replaced with a homegrown version.

Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, may hold the decisive say in the Diet on whether to initiate a national referendum on changing the Constitution. For the Diet to initiate such a referendum, more than two-thirds of both chambers need to support such a proposal.

Komeito would likely oppose a radical change to Article 9, but just adding a paragraph on the SDF could be politically acceptable to the Buddhist-backed party, observers say.

Komeito has long called for the use of kaken (adding something to the Constitution). This means adding some articles while leaving all of the current articles intact.

Under that policy, the party will “cautiously consider” adding an article that mentions the SDF “as the minimum necessary” armed force, according to a section on constitutional revision on Komeito’s website.

Abe’s proposal “fits kaken as advocated by Komeito well. It can be viewed as signaling that (Abe) gave particular consideration to Komeito,” Hajime Funada, a key LDP member of the Lower House Commission on the Constitution, wrote on his website Monday.

Some members of the Democratic Party, the largest opposition forces, may find it difficult to oppose Abe’s proposal to add such a graph on the SDF to Article 9.

For example, former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and former DP Secretary-General Yukio Edano once called for drafting a similar constitutional article. The DP is currently opposed to any constitutional revision under Abe.

The Constitution has no article mentioning the SDF, whose existence was often criticized as unconstitutional during the Cold War era.

Numerous retired SDF officers have called on politicians to add an article to the Constitution acknowledging the SDF and defining its mission, thereby improving its status in society.

Media polls have shown a majority of voters believe the SDF’s existence is constitutional and generally support its daily defense operations.

But Suga said many scholars still argue that the existence of the SDF is unconstitutional, and Abe wants to eliminate that criticism by amending Article 9.

The first paragraph of Article 9 states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

The second paragraph says: “In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

Despite those words, a predecessor to the SDF was set up in 1950 as the U.S. urged Japan to create an armed force to defend itself after the Korean War broke out earlier that year.

Despite Article 9, government officials have long maintained that the Constitution does not ban Japan from the basic right to self-defense, which they say is an inherent right of any sovereign country.

Under the government’s current interpretation of the Constitution, Japan is thus allowed to use “the minimum necessary force” to defend itself when it comes under attack without violating the ban on “war potential” in the second paragraph, officials have argued.

In 2015, Abe caused a big political row by changing the government’s long-held interpretation to state that Japan can exercise the right of collective self-defense, or the right to use force to help an ally even if Japan itself is not under attack.

However, according to Abe’s new interpretation, Japan is allowed to engage in collective defense only when its “survival” is at stake in a critical situation.

On his website, Funada also pointed out that Abe’s proposal can be considered surprising, because LDP and Komeito executives have agreed to first push for less controversial revisions to the Constitution, such as an article to extend Diet members’ terms during national emergencies, rather than starting off by tackling a hot-button issue like Article 9.

Meetings of the Commission on the Constitution should proceed with support of the largest opposition party, but the DP may refuse to cooperate because Abe has set a deadline to enact a revised Constitution by 2020, Funada wrote.