TOKYO • As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rushes to push through unpopular legislation allowing broader use of Japan's military, the heated security debate masks a deeper divide over the pacifist charter, drafted by US occupation officials after Japan's World War II defeat.
Admirers view the Constitution as the source of Japan's peace, prosperity and democracy.
Many of Mr Abe's conservative backers, who have long wanted to rewrite the Constitution but lacked the political means to do so, view it as a shoddy document written, in the words of one commentary, "with malice and vengeance" to keep Japan forever subdued.
"If we keep the Constitution that GHQ (US occupation headquarters) gave to a defeated Japan, Japan will always remain a defeated country," says a great-grandfather in a cartoon published recently by Mr Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to explain why the charter should be revised.
That view is fanning suspicion among Mr Abe's critics that the proposed legislation to ease limits on the military is a step towards gutting not only the charter's pacifist Article 9, but also basic principles such as respect for human rights.
I think he hates the concept of modern constitutionalism, the concept that the powers of the government should be restricted by the Constitution.
PROFESSOR YASUO HASEBE, a constitutional scholar at Waseda University, on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's attitude towards the Constitution
"I think he hates the concept of modern constitutionalism, the concept that the powers of the government should be restricted by the Constitution," said Professor Yasuo Hasebe, a constitutional scholar at Waseda University.
Drafted by US officials during a frantic week in February 1946, and based on principles set out by General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme allied commander in Japan, the Constitution renounces the right to wage war or maintain armed forces and enshrines democracy and human rights.
It has been stretched to allow Japan a military equal to Britain's but still constrained compared with other countries' armed forces.
Invited to speak to a parliamentary panel by the LDP, the soft-spoken Prof Hasebe set off a firestorm when he said last month legislation to let Japan exercise the right of collective self-defence, or fighting to defend a friendly country under attack, was unconstitutional.
Despite the furore, the ruling bloc may push Bills allowing a greater role for the military through the Lower House as early as this week to ensure their passage before Parliament adjourns on Sept 27. That could erode Mr Abe's already slipping ratings.
Prime Minister Abe has made it clear he wants to revise the Constitution, but formal amendment requires approval by two-thirds of both Houses of Parliament and a majority in a referendum, conditions that have never been met.
Instead, his Cabinet - arguing that new security threats such as a rising China make change vital - has adopted a resolution reinterpreting the Constitution to allow for collective self-defence.
"This is a Constitution that was imposed on us and should be re-written completely," said Nihon University's Professor Akira Momichi, one of a handful of scholars who back Mr Abe. "But the process of amendment is a very difficult hurdle, so we have to do the best with what we have."
Concern about the proposed changes has sparked demonstrations and grassroots activism.
"This is not just a matter of Article 9," lawyer Keiko Ota recently told a small gathering at a Tokyo cafe. "The question is whether or not we want to stop being a country ruled by law."
Defenders argue that though drafted by occupiers, the Constitution has been largely embraced by Japanese citizens.