Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told lawmakers Thursday he intends to change the post-WWII constitution that imposed pacifism on Japan, in a move likely to stir suspicion in China and beyond.
Abe, who was elected in December, has long harbored ambitions to re-write a document critics say hampers effective self defense, but supporters say is a bulwark against the militarism that blighted Asia last century.
“I will start with amending Article 96 of the constitution,” Abe told upper house lawmakers, referring to a clause stipulating that amendments require a two-thirds majority in the Diet.
In the run-up to polls, Abe said he wanted to study the possibility of altering the constitution’s definition of Japan’s armed forces.
The well-funded and well-equipped military—one of the world’s most technologically-advanced—is referred to as the Self-Defense Forces, and barred from taking aggressive action.
Abe said before the election that he would look into making the SDF a full-fledged military, but the suggestion sets alarm bells ringing in Asian countries subject to Japan’s brutal military adventurism of the past.
U.S. occupying forces imposed the constitution on Japan in the aftermath of World War II, but its war-renouncing Article Nine became part of the fabric of national life, engendering a pacifism that remains dear to many Japanese.
Retiree Kazuo Shimamura said Japan’s suffering in WWII, including from two atomic bombs, was reason enough not to change.
“I want the constitution to stay as it is to prevent new wars from happening,” he said.
But critics say a pledge that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained” ties Tokyo’s hands at a time of growing regional unease and amid a sovereignty spat with China.
“Japan’s next generation will have to face all sorts of problems,” 60-year-old Nobuyuki Shimane said. “We have to take our destiny in our hands and change the status of the army to protect our territorial sovereignty.”
Abe told the Diet he wants to set up a Japanese version of Washington’s National Security Council, tasked with the gathering and analysis of information.
“It is unavoidable that we strengthen Japan’s security arrangements to protect our national interest and ensure the safety of our people in the increasingly complex international situation,” he said.
Japan and China have butted diplomatic heads repeatedly over the last half-year over a disputed island chain in the East China Sea.
Tokyo views Beijing’s military build up with suspicion and says its vast trading partner should be more transparent about what it spends on its increasingly mighty forces and to what end, something Abe Thursday said was a “common concern” for the entire region.
Since coming to power, Abe, whose father was a World War II cabinet member and later prime minister, has been on a bridge-building mission to South East Asia, looking to shore up alliances with capitals disquieted by Beijing’s rise.
In December, Manila—which has a separate territorial row with Beijing—said it favored a re-armed Japan that could act as a counterbalance to China.
Tetsuro Kato, professor of politics at Waseda University, said any change would represent a significant shift for a generation that embraced post-war democracy, adding it would also prove problematic abroad.
“South Korean newspapers, especially, focused on Abe’s plans for constitutional reform during the election campaign,” he said.
Constitutional amendments in Japan require a two-thirds majority of lawmakers in both houses, and must be ratified by a referendum, where they can pass with a simple majority of those voting.
The LDP and its coalition partner New Komeito have a more-than two-thirds majority in the lower house, but the dovish junior party is wary about amendments.
The less powerful upper house is controlled by no single party, but elections for half of the seats there must be held later this year.
Shoichi Koseki, a constitutional history expert at Dokkyo University, said lowering the bar for amendments could create instability, allowing the constitution to change with every new government.
“Many countries require large majorities for this,” he said, pointing to the tough amendment protocols in the United States as an example.
© 2013 AFP