Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has broken the norm in his Cabinet lineups, on Friday called for revising the Constitution to introduce a popular vote for the nation’s top leader.

“Diet members may oppose this fiercely, but I think the general public will largely welcome the idea,” Koizumi told his first news conference since taking office. “This is a structural reform in politics . . . a deregulation in the political circles.”

Koizumi added that he hopes his initiative will help break Japan’s postwar mentality that has long tabooed any attempt to revise the 1946 Constitution.

Concerning the possibility of revising the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, Koizumi said, “It would be difficult to put that on the political agenda at this moment.”

However, he said, “We should stop branding anybody speaking about revising the Article 9 as hawkish or a rightist.”

Koizumi said that Article 9, which stipulates that Japan shall never maintain “land, sea and air forces,” fails to reflect reality, noting that the nation has had its own military forces, the Self-Defense Forces, since 1954.

“It is hard to support the argument that the SDF are not military forces,” he said at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence. “And I don’t think Japan should be left unarmed, either.”

The reformist leader went on to claim that revising Article 9 is also desirable in order to allow Japan to engage in “collective defense” and defend its allies, including the United States, in the event of a regional crisis.

Koizumi stressed that Japan’s relationship with the U.S. will remain the linchpin of foreign policy, adding that he hopes to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush “at the earliest possible opportunity.”

“The reason why Japan stormed into the war was, in short, that it was being isolated from the world,” he said. “We should never forget this lesson that the most important thing is to be engaged with the world.”

Meanwhile, Koizumi vowed to pursue Japan’s claim to all Russian-held islands off Hokkaido — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets.

“We must not send a wrong message to Russia,” he said. “What we need to do is to have Russia recognize that all the disputed islands belong to Japan.”

Addressing the economy, Koizumi repeated his pledge to push forward on structural reform of the economy and administration. To achieve greater efficiency, he said that the central government should transfer its tasks to the private sector or local governments wherever possible.

“I will thoroughly examine the rationality and necessity of each job currently carried out by the central government,” he said. “There will be no exception.”

Asked about the Upper House election scheduled for July, Koizumi said he hopes his coalition government will retain a majority of the 252-member chamber.

“I suppose those who understand my policies will support us (in the election),” he said.

The maverick Koizumi confessed that he has been under heavier pressure than he had anticipated.

“But I think many people have given me qualifying marks in appointing the right people in the right Cabinet posts,” he said.

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