The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has decided to pursue a plan proposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to amend Article 9 of the nation’s war-renouncing Constitution and add an explicit reference to the Self-Defense Forces.
Abe, who is eager to make the first-ever revision to the 1947 Constitution written during the U.S.-led postwar occupation, has called for clarity about the legal status of the decades-old SDF.
Veteran LDP lawmaker Hiroyuki Hosoda, who heads the party’s constitutional reform task force, told reporters after a plenary meeting on the issue Thursday that the group “will work toward the direction” of seeking a revision in line with Abe’s idea.
After three hours of heated discussion, the task force decided to leave any future details to the discretion of Hosoda.
It was a major turning point for the LDP, which has spent months trying unsuccessfully to unify its stance on how to amend Article 9 — widely perceived as a linchpin of the postwar charter.
Some members have called for a more drastic overhaul of the clause that would remove a paragraph banning Japan from possessing any military with “war potential.”
Although the panel largely settled on Abe’s more benign proposal, senior party lawmakers told reporters after the meeting that going forward, the LDP is likely to recognize that some of its members prefer a more radical revision.
Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who has been one of the most strident advocates for a more radical revision of Article 9, looked frustrated as he emerged from the talks.
With the party bracing for an annual convention this weekend, Ishiba said the panel’s leadership had seemed desperate for closure and scrambled to establish a consensus on entrusting Hosoda to finalize further details.
“It seemed to me that many of those attending the meeting were desperate to agree (Hosoda) should be granted the ultimate discretion,” Ishiba said. “I must say it was an extremely unusual decision-making process.”
Many members of the LDP have leaned toward the view that an attempt to change the original text of Article 9, which is cherished among the wider public, will likely stir concern that Japan is backing away from its pacifist postwar stance. Making too drastic a change could also raise the risk of the public rejecting it, jeopardizing a historic chance to revise the top law.
During the gathering on Thursday, officials of the task force presented draft texts for the revised Article 9, modified from earlier versions presented last week. One working draft that won the support of many lawmakers would create a new “Article 9-2” section that states the SDF shall be maintained “as an armed organization” for Japan to take “necessary self-defense measures.”
The meeting ended without reaching a conclusion on the specific lines to be added to Article 9, but Hosoda told reporters that the draft would provide the “direction” for the revision.
The LDP hopes that proposed revisions for Article 9, along with suggestions to rewrite other clauses, such as those linked to education and the electoral system, will be used as a springboard for further discussions with other parties.
Amending the supreme law requires approval by two-thirds majorities in both chambers of the Diet, followed by majority support in a national referendum. The LDP and other forces supportive of revising the Constitution currently control the number of seats required to drive progress on the change.
Abe came up with his Article 9 revision proposal in May last year, arguing that the lack of a reference to the SDF in the Constitution leaves room for forces to be called “unconstitutional.” The lack of a clear reference also makes it “irresponsible” to ask troops to risk their lives to defend Japan against North Korea and other security threats, he said.
He has also asserted that the current restrictions imposed on SDF activities by Article 9 will remain because the original two paragraphs will be left intact.
But opposition parties have argued that the pacifism embedded in the original text would likely be weakened through the new language, citing a general rule in legal interpretation that newer legislation supersedes prior law.
They have also questioned whether there is a need to seek such an amendment if the purpose, as stated by Abe, is just to affirm the existing status quo.
Media polls have shown that the public is divided on Article 9.
While many countries have constitutions that do not allow their governments to launch wars of aggression, the pacifism written into Japan’s Constitution is said to be unique. The second paragraph of Article 9 is characteristic of this, stating that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained” and that “the right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”
The government frames the SDF, established in 1954, as different from ordinary militaries, with the use of force strictly limited to self-defense and the possession of armaments restricted from reaching a level that constitutes “war potential.”
But the SDF has expanded its activities over time and has become known as one of the top 10 well-equipped and well-funded forces in the world, leading some constitutional scholars to argue that the SDF is now “unconstitutional.”