National / Politics

Abe attempts to rally from scandal, repeating Article 9 vows at LDP's annual convention

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

At the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s annual convention, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday renewed his vows to revise the postwar Constitution to rectify its perceived incompatibility with the Self-Defense Forces.

Abe’s earnest pledge to formalize the status of the SDF, however, immediately triggered criticism from his rival that it lacked fresh details. It also followed a moment of contrition that saw Abe, seconds into his speech, bow deeply to apologize for an ongoing document-tampering scandal that has arguably clouded his prospects for winning a historic third term at the LDP’s presidential election in September.

In an impassioned speech, Abe re-emphasized the need to legitimize the status of the SDF in the supreme law — an idea he first unveiled in May last year. Many constitutional scholars regard the SDF, which boasts one of the world’s largest defense budgets, as a violation of war-renouncing Article 9, though the government has long argued otherwise on the grounds that the organization stops short of being the “war potential” proscribed by the pacifist clause.

“SDF personnel risk their lives to protect our nation. . . . Yet their potential unconstitutionality is still mentioned in many textbooks — and SDF personnel and their children grow up reading these books. How can this be OK?,” Abe asked the packed crowd of fellow LDP lawmakers.

“Let’s put an end to talk of their unconstitutionality. This is the responsibility of the LDP,” Abe said.

Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who is widely expected to challenge Abe in the LDP presidential election, was quick to take a swipe at his rival’s speech.

“What he said today was basically the same as what he said in May last year,” when he first unveiled his wish to codify the SDF, Ishiba told reporters. “His speech today didn’t reflect at all what the LDP has discussed over the past year. It went nowhere near discussing actual substance.”

On Thursday, an LDP panel wrapped up a months-long debate over how to revise war-renouncing Article 9 after it settled on a few draft proposals that were largely in line with Abe’s desire to add an “explicit reference” to the SDF.

The closure has paved the way for the party to draw up official amendment proposals that, aside from revising Article 9, will include a guarantee of free education and a clause that allows the state to declare a state of emergency for natural disasters. But with Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner, still leery of making any change to Article 9, the LDP expects a bumpy ride as it seeks to call a national referendum on revising the charter later this year.

This year’s convention came with the Abe administration reeling from the renewed outcry over the Moritomo Gakuen scandal.

Recent opinions polls by leading media outlets pointed to plunges of around 10 percent in the support rate for his Cabinet after the Finance Ministry admitted earlier this month that it falsified official documents related to the shady sale of state land to the nationalist school operator. The omissions included references to both Shinzo and Akie Abe, his wife.

Abe, apparently jittery over growing intraparty frustration with the scandal, started his speech by vowing to “thoroughly investigate” the facts of what happened and engineer a “drastic institutional shake-up.” He also took the opportunity to tout the success of his foreign diplomacy. He welcomed North Korea’s recent shift in attitude, billing it as a result of the “maximum pressure” campaign Japan spearheaded with Washington.

Noting he is slated to meet U.S. President Donald Trump next month to discuss North Korea, Abe reasserted his usual line that the Japan-U.S. alliance is “the strongest it’s ever been” — though Trump’s abrupt decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim John Un and to not exclude Japan from the steel and aluminum tariffs that took effect Friday arguably called into question the depth of the rapport between the two.

Abe also stressed he will do his “utmost” to recover the Japanese abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s.