Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday told parliament that he intends to change the country’s post-World War II constitution, lowering the bar for further amendments.
“I will start with amending Article 96 of the constitution, a move that many factions [inside his Liberal Democratic Party] support,” Abe told upper house lawmakers, referring to the clause stipulating amendments require a two-thirds majority in parliament.
In the run-up to his landslide election victory in December, Abe said he wanted to study the possibility of altering the definition of Japan’s armed forces contained in the document.
The country’s well-funded and well-equipped military is referred to as the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), and barred from taking aggressive action. Its role is limited to defense of the nation.
Abe has said he would like to look into making the SDF a full-fledged military, a plan that sets alarm bells ringing in Asian nations subject to Japan’s occupation in the first half of the 20th century.
US occupying forces imposed the constitution in the aftermath of World War II, but its war-renouncing Article 9 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 World War II, 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.
However, 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 parliament 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 buildup 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 yesterday said was a “common concern” for the entire region.
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.
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 US as an example.