Abe repeats desire for revised Constitution by 2020

He says proposed review will stay true to principles of pacifism, clarify use of military

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday reiterated his desire to have a revised Constitution in force by next year, adding that the dawn of the Reiwa (beautiful harmony) era with Emperor Naruhito's ascension on Wednesday should be the impetus to speed up stalled discussions on the supreme law of the land.

Speaking on the day the post-war, United States-written Constitution came into force 72 years ago, he said the document enshrined the nation's ideals and would serve as its lodestar going into the future.

Mr Abe was addressing, via video message, a public forum on the Constitution, organised by a grassroots group with ties to the influential Nippon Kaigi right-wing lobby.

He stressed that any revision would stay faithful to the principles of pacifism, and would aim to remove all doubts about the constitutionality of the nation's military or Self-Defence Force (SDF).

"I said two years ago that I wanted the new Constitution to come into force in 2020," he told the forum. "This feeling has not changed."

Despite past dissent from even within his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Mr Abe remained confident about the move in an interview with the Sankei daily that was published on Thursday. He cited the LDP's resounding victory in a snap election in October 2017, and his re-election as LDP chief in last year's internal party elections.

Both times, he told the Sankei, constitutional revision was at the front and centre of his campaigns.

But recent media polls suggest the issue remains a political hot potato, judging by the results of a poll published in the Asahi daily yesterday. Some 64 per cent of respondents saw no need to fiddle with the war-renouncing Article 9.

Any moves to revise Article 9 may also upset Japan's neighbours, China and South Korea, where wartime wounds still run deep.

Article 9 forever renounces Japan's sovereign right to wage war, and the threat or use of force to settle international disputes.

It adds that "land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained".

But the SDF comprises about 247,000 active personnel, and Japan's ballooning defence budget is among the world's largest. This has raised questions over the SDF's constitutionality.

The hawkish Mr Abe, who in 2015 "reinterpreted" the Constitution so that the SDF could enter into combat to help allies for "collective self-defence", said there was a need to enshrine the SDF in the Constitution to acknowledge its contributions.

Some 90 per cent of the public have good impressions of the SDF, he added.

To revise the Constitution, Mr Abe will first need to win the approval of two-thirds of lawmakers in both the Lower and Upper House of the Diet, as Japan's legislature is called. He will then have to call a national referendum within 60 to 180 days, and at least 50 per cent must be in favour.

Mr Abe has proposed three other changes to the Constitution: to guarantee education opportunities regardless of a student's economic background; to allow emergency Cabinet orders during national emergencies; and to guarantee that even the least populated prefecture would have at least one seat up for election in the Upper House.

The conservative Yomiuri daily said in an editorial that Germany had changed its Constitution at least 60 times since World War II. "Re-examining the Constitution constantly to ensure it functions adequately (...) is the responsibility of the legislature," it said.

But opposition leader Yukio Edano, of the Constitutional Democratic Party, yesterday warned that Japan's constitutionalism was "at substantial risk".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2019, with the headline 'Abe repeats desire for revised Constitution by 2020'. Print Edition | Subscribe