“If moving to the right means increasing defense spending and getting rid of obsolete barriers to more effective defense cooperation with the US, then my answer to that is ‘bring it on.’ We absolutely welcome it and so does almost the entire Southeast Asia — not just the Philippines,” Michael Green at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said.
Abe has also pledged to increase defense spending after a decade of decline, which would probably break through a de facto cap of 1 percent of GDP in place for decades.
“If moving to the right means gratuitous and not very smart moves, like revisiting the Kono statement, that’s a problem for the US ... not as a moral issue, but as a realpolitik issue,” Green said.
Abe favors revising a 1993 statement by then-top government spokesman Yohei Kono, in which Japan admitted military involvement in forcing women into sexual slavery at wartime brothels, although he now says he would seek experts’ views first.
The constitution, drafted by US Occupation authorities during a frantic week in February 1947, has never been altered.
Revisions require approval by two-thirds of the members of both houses of parliament and a majority of voters in a national referendum. However, changing the interpretation can be done without legislation, so Abe will likely try that first.
Still, the prospect of an election for parliament’s upper house in July next year could persuade Abe to go slow to avoid upsetting the LDP’s long-time partner, the more moderate New Komeito Party.
“The next thing [on the agenda] is not the constitutional interpretation, the next thing is the upper house election next summer,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former diplomat who is now research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo. “If you go too fast, it could have repercussions.”
However, he added: “It will be on the agenda sooner or later because this is the minimum level of required policy change to make our alliance [with the US] and international peacekeeping operations more effective and credible.”
Advocates of revising the charter say it has now been stretched to the limit so formal changes are needed both to make joint operations with US forces easier and perhaps open the door to NATO-style security treaties with other countries.
A March survey by the conservative Yomiuri newspaper showed 54 percent of voters wanted some change to the charter, the first time that figure exceeded half since 2009.
Thirty-nine percent favored revising Article 9, while the same percentage said changing the interpretation was enough.
Many members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, expected to suffer a bashing at the polls, favor revising the constitution, but the party has been divided on the topic.
Abe managed during his last term to get parliament to enact procedures for a referendum, and he set up an experts’ panel to outline scenarios where Japan should aid its ally.
However, he quit for health reasons before the panel submitted the report and his successor shelved it.
Abe and his backers have made clear that their first target would not be Article 9 itself, but a separate article spelling out the need for the two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament to enact revisions. They want to reduce that hurdle to a simple majority so that subsequent changes are easier.