Japan voters split on revising pacifist constitution

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japanese voters are divided over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's goal of revising the post-World War II pacifist constitution to ease limits on the military, although nearly 90 per cent of lower house lawmakers back the change, an opinion poll showed.

Abe, who returned to the premiership after his conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a huge election victory last month, has made clear he wants to loosen the constitutional limits on the military. The constitution has never been formally altered since it was drafted by US Occupation forces in 1947.

The survey by the Asahi newspaper and a University of Tokyo research team showed that 50 per cent of voters were in favour of revising the constitution, up from 41 per cent in 2009 but far below the 89 per cent of members of parliament elected in December's lower house election who want to alter the charter.

Forty-five per cent of voters were in favour of allowing Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defence, or coming to the aid of an ally under attack. That was up from 37 per cent in 2009, but well below the 79 per cent of MPs who back the change in interpretation of the constitution.

Poll questions were mailed to 3,000 voters last month, of whom 1,889 responded. The lawmakers were surveyed before December's election.

Japan has for decades been stretching the limits of the constitution's pacifist Article Nine, which if strictly interpreted bans even the maintenance of a military. It has dispatched troops for international peace keeping operations and to Iraq on a non-combat reconstruction mission in 2004-2006.

But changes have been politically contentious, while signs Japan is flexing its military muscle have the potential to upset rival China, where memories of Tokyo's war-time aggression run deep. China and Japan are also now locked in a territorial row.

Constitutional revisions require the backing of two-thirds of the lawmakers in both houses of parliament and a majority of voters in a national referendum.