• Kyodo

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An Upper House panel reopened debate Wednesday on revising the Constitution — a move seen as an essential step in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s quest to amend the charter for the first time since World War II’s end.

The debate was the first time substantial discussions had taken place at a government panel on the Constitution since Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party rolled to victory in the July Upper House election. That poll win gave the ruling bloc and other pro-revision forces enough seats in both houses of the Diet to propose changes.

Still, the LDP and the main opposition Democratic Party remain far apart on the immediate need to advance discussions on constitutional revisions.

While the LDP has called the matter an “important issue in national politics,” the Democratic Party has said there are other issues — including hammering out the details of the new security laws — that must be dealt with first.

The Constitution has “problems” in both the way it was crafted and in its content, said Masaharu Nakagawa, an LDP lawmaker representing the party on the commission. Because the charter was drafted by the U.S.-led Occupation after World War II, Nakagawa said, it is difficult to say it “sufficiently reflects the free public will.”

Shinkun Haku, a Democratic Party lawmaker on the commission, however, said his party would “never engage in discussions on revising the Constitution” if the panel did not examine the constitutionality of the contentious security laws enacted in September last year amid searing criticism.

Commissions on the Constitution were set up in both Diet chambers in 2007, but active debate has often been hampered, mainly due to a standoff between ruling and opposition parties. The Upper House panel was reactivated Wednesday after a nine-month hiatus. The Lower House panel was to resume discussions Thursday.

The resumption of substantive discussions is an important chance for Abe and the LDP to build momentum for constitutional revision, an issue that has divided the public. The most controversial revision would be any changes to the war-renouncing Article 9.

But little progress is expected during the ongoing extraordinary Diet session, with the DP taking a cautious line toward narrowing specific areas for amending the supreme law.

DP cooperation, however, may not be essential.

The LDP, its coalition ally Komeito and other pro-amendment opposition forces already have the two-thirds majority in both Diet chambers legally required to initiate a referendum on the changes to the public.

But gaining a broad consensus among various parties for the proposal is believed to be key to winning popular support in any referendum.

In an apparent concession to the opposition parties, the LDP said last month that it will not propose to the Diet the party’s 2012 draft constitution, which has been blasted for gutting the pacifist nature of the charter and curtailing individual rights.

The 2012 proposal included rewriting Article 9 by removing a clause that bans Japan from having a military.

While Abe’s ultimate goal is considered to be the revision of Article 9, that section is unlikely to be put on the table for the time being due to a lack of public support.

Instead, ideas that have been floated as areas of possible amendment include the creation of a new article to extend the four-year term of Lower House members in the event of major natural disasters and other emergencies.

Constitutional revision was a key objective of Abe’s grandfather and former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. It has also been a long-held goal of the LDP, which believes Japan should have its “own” Constitution instead of the one foisted upon it by the U.S.

The Upper House panel on the Constitution last had substantial debate in February, but talks were halted that month after an LDP lawmaker, summoned to speak before the body, made a verbal gaffe describing U.S. President Barack Obama as a descendant of black slaves.

The Lower House commission, meanwhile, has not held discussions for a year and five months after a feud between the ruling and opposition parties intensified amid debate over the security legislation, which was rammed through the Diet in September last year.

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