Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged his ruling Liberal Democratic Party to present by the end of the year a new plan for amending the postwar Constitution.
“I want the LDP to discuss (the amendment) thoroughly, compile a plan within this year and present it to the public,” Abe said on a radio program Sunday.
“I’d like to know whether (the plan) will garner public support,” he said.
This is the first time the prime minister has publicly set out a time frame for making the first change ever to the Constitution.
In a video message May 3 played at a gathering of pro-amendment supporters, Abe proposed amending war-renouncing Article 9 by inserting a passage that would legitimize the Self-Defense Forces to provide them with greater legal backing. He said he wanted this done by 2020.
The proposal has upset lawmakers who have been holding Diet discussions on potential amendments, including members of Abe’s LDP.
Even if the proposal is criticized, “I thought that I have to create momentum to encourage people to hold discussions,” Abe said on the radio program.
“My remarks prompted people to start thinking about it as a realistic issue,” he added.
On his proposal to write the SDF into Article 9, which bans the use of force and the maintenance of war potential, Abe claimed that his intention is to make the existence of the armed forces constitutionality indisputable.
“I want people to make a judgment,” he said.
Experts, however, say that the process of amending the Constitution would be rocky because it would open up a sensitive public debate about Japan’s pacifist diplomatic stance and the vague legal status of the SDF.
“Prime Minister Abe has taken a risky gamble, apparently thinking that if a constitutional change is not possible during his term, it will never take place anyway,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University. He described Abe’s proposal as a “bombshell” intended to jump-start full-fledged deliberations on the issue.
Abe’s proposal was a wake-up call for members of his party, which in recent years has drafted its own modified type of constitution to promote its conservative policies.
“As the task force (for promoting constitutional revisions), we feel the (LDP) president’s extraordinary determination and strong expectations. Taking them seriously, we will accelerate and deepen discussions to flesh out a proposal,” Okiharu Yasuoka, who leads the task force, said earlier this month at a meeting.
The LDP now hopes to devise its latest amendment proposal by the end of the year, considering the time needed to consult other parties and deal with other procedures needed to pass it by 2020.
But Iwai doubted that the LDP will “make it by year-end,” partly because he believes it will be very difficult to come up with a logical explanation for why the kind of revision Abe is pushing is actually needed, and party because it is different from what the LDP has advocated in the past.
Article 9 renounces Japan’s right to wage war in the first paragraph and bans the right to maintain military forces or other “war potential” in the second. It is the most famous and contentious clause of the Constitution, which was basically drafted by the U.S.-led Occupation after Japan lost World War II.
While not specifically mentioned in Article 9, the government interprets the existence of the SDF as being within Japan’s right to defend itself, thus allowing it to possess defensive forces. But some constitutional scholars say that having even a self-defensive organization violates the letter of the supreme law.
In the video, Abe argued that there is a need to legitimize the SDF while retaining the two existing paragraphs of Article 9, claiming that doing so will leave no doubt about the constitutionality of the SDF, which enjoys generally strong public support.
Abe’s proposal is apparently a compromise intended to place him midway between his party and the war-fearing public. He is aware that the Article 9 revision advocated by his own party is likely too radical to clear the tough legislative hurdles for initiating an amendment, much less winning a national referendum.
Once his party restarts discussions on the issue, Nihon University’s Iwai said he expects some political soul-searching.
“I expect there will be a tug-of-war on whether they should pursue their ideals or act realistically (to make an amendment).”
Even if the change is a tweak, any revision to the Constitution is important for the LDP because it thinks it will help “unshackle” Japan from the system established by the Occupation.
Another challenge will be coordinating its goals with Komeito, the LDP’s Buddhist-backed junior coalition ally, which is known for its dovish stance on defense issues.
Kazuo Kitagawa, who leads Komeito’s panel on constitutional issues, has made it clear he cannot agree with any amendment that will further expand the scope of SDF activities overseas beyond what was engineered by the divisive security laws enacted in 2015.
The laws, which provoked some of the largest protests in recent memory, bypass Article 9 through a reinterpretation of the Constitution that allows Japan to use force to defend the United States and other allies that come under attack even when Japan is not. This concept is called collective self-defense. Critics say the laws may very well lead to Japan being dragged into foreign wars.
Revising the Constitution has become a realistic prospect because the LDP, Komeito and other pro-amendment parties occupy a two-thirds majority in both house of the Diet.
Abe’s Cabinet is also enjoying a relatively high support rate, which is important in handling politically sensitive issues.