TOKYO (Reuters) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scored a victory in his drive to rewrite Japan’s pacifist constitution and ease its limits on military actions overseas on Monday when parliament enacted a law outlining steps for a referendum on revising the post-World War Two charter.
Abe, at 52 Japan’s first prime minister born after the war, has made revising the 1947 constitution a key element in his efforts to boost Japan’s role in global security affairs, limited for decades by the constitution’s pacifist Article 9.
Drafted by U.S. occupation authorities during one frantic week in February 1947, the constitution has never been altered and procedures for a referendum had not been specified.
Under the referendum law, approved by parliament’s upper house on Monday, no vote on revising the constitution would be held for at least three years, but its enactment will increase momentum for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s push to state clearly in the charter Japan’s right to maintain a military.
“The law will be implemented three years hence, and until then, it is important to debate broadly and deeply in a calm environment,” Abe told reporters.
Abe has said the LDP would make constitutional reform a focal point in an election for the upper house in July, his first big electoral test since taking office last September.
Abe has also made revising the constitution a core element of his drive to shed a U.S.-imposed “postwar regime” that conservatives say stressed individualism at the expense of Japanese values such as devotion to the public good.
Changing the charter requires approval by two-thirds of the members of both houses of parliament as well as half the voters in a national referendum.
The biggest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, is not opposed to revising the constitution but differs with the LDP on how it should be altered, while the smaller Social Democratic and Communist parties oppose any changes at all.
“If a majority of the people say ‘No’ to the sort of society those who want to revise the constitution are trying to create, the constitution cannot be changed,” Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii told reporters. “The real battle begins now.”
Article 9 renounces the right to wage war to resolve international disputes and bans the maintenance of a military.
But the article has been stretched not only to permit armed forces for self-defence, but to allow overseas military activities, including the deployment by Abe’s predecessor of troops on a non-combat mission to a de facto war zone in Iraq.
Japanese ground troops came home last year, but on Monday a lower house panel approved a bill that would extend the deployment of about 200 air force personnel to Kuwait, from where they airlift supplies to the U.S. military in Iraq.
Japan’s closest security ally, the United States, has made clear it would welcome revision of Article 9, but Japanese voters remain cautious.
A survey published earlier this month by the liberal Asahi newspaper showed that while 58 percent of respondents favoured some changes to the constitution, 49 percent opposed changing Article 9 against 33 percent who backed revising it.
Abe’s opponents also say proposed changes would strengthen the hand of the state at the expense of individual civil rights.
Abe has pledged to revise the constitution while in office, but with any changes set to take years, he is also moving to alter a long-standing government interpretation that bans Japan from exercising its right to collective self-defence, or defending an ally under attack.
Shunji Yanai, head of a panel set up to advise Abe on the topic, told Reuters earlier this month that the experts were likely to recommend revising the interpretation so that Japan could, for example, shoot down North Korean missiles aimed at the United States rather than at Japanese territory.
That move might not go down well with voters, though.
A survey by Kyodo news agency published on Sunday showed that 62 percent of respondents wanted the current interpretation to remain intact, up 7.4 points from an April poll.