Japan edging closer to constitutional changes with weekend elections

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems poised for a big win in elections this weekend as his ruling party is closer to a controversial goal: rewriting its American-based constitution to allow for an active military force.

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Shinzo Abe

Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party will likely take control of the upper house of Japan’s parliament (known as the National Diet) in voting that starts on Sunday. It already controls the lower house.

It seems less certain that the Liberal Democratic Party would have enough votes for a two-thirds majority in both Houses—which would be required to start the process of revising its constitution.

Japan marked the 66th anniversary this year of a constitution drawn up after World War II. It was written by American officials who were concerned with the possible return of Japan as a military power.

One constant discussion in Japan has been changes to Article 9, which limits the country’s military to a self-defense force. In recent years, the interpretation of Article 9 has been stretched to allow Japan to expand its forces. But its military can’t take part in collective actions with U.S. forces, which is a growing issue as Japan and China boost their military spending.

Abe has made Article 9 an issue in the current campaign. And he has pushed for significant changes to make the amendment process much easier.

The Liberal Democrats want to change Article 96, which requires two-thirds of both houses of parliament to approve a constitutional amendment before it goes to a national referendum for voters to approve.

The change to Article 96 would allow just a simple majority of the Diet to approve a proposed amendment, and a simple majority of voters to ratify it in a national referendum.

Such a radical change could allow one party, if it controls a simple majority of the government and the electorate, to rapidly add amendments—which is the exact opposite of the system used in the U.S. Constitution.

Polls in Japan show strong support for the Liberal Democrats, but mixed signals about changing Japan’s constitution. Many Japanese voters remain undecided on the issue of constitutional change, according to some reports. One poll showed support for constitutional changes at just 39 percent, while another put the interest level at 56 percent.

And Abe’s party would likely need the help of smaller parties to get to a two-thirds majority for constitutional changes.

The Liberal Democrats say they want a truly Japanese constitution that reflects their nation and its historic values–not those of the West.

Their draft version from 2012 is “appropriate to the times and circumstances of Japan,” the party said in a press release. That would include an emphasis on a traditional definition of family.

“It newly prescribes that a family shall be respected as a basic unit of a society and that family members should help one other,” the draft says.

Opponents believe that traditional definition could reduce rights held by women in Japanese society, since men hold the dominant role in family relations. They also think that free speech would become subordinate to a desire to keep “public order.”

But the bigger issue could be the fear of China and South Korea’s reaction to a Japan with a traditionally Japanese constitution.

One thing is clear: As the Abe administration pushes for more economic reforms, its opponents expect an equally big push to make constitutional changes, which have been called Abe’s “life work.”

Also this week, a key defense adviser told The Wall Street Journal that Japan was preparing to expand its military capabilities within the guidelines of the current constitution, including the ability to attack military bases in self-defense and the creation of a defensive unit similar to the U.S. Marine Corps.

“Our requirements for equipment and our goals change accordingly. That’s why we are revising the defense guidelines,” said Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera.

“But as we review the division of work between Japan and the U.S., we should consider developing a limited ability to strike at enemies’ strategic bases when clear intent exists to attack us. It is our understanding that Japan’s constitution allows this.”

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