TOKYO - After months of protracted wrangling within Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on how to revise the pacifist Article 9 of the Constitution, the party on Thursday (March 22) reached a broad consensus on the way forward.
In line with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's preferred option, the LDP's draft tacks on a new clause that will enshrine its Self-Defence Force (SDF) into the charter, but without ditching the war-renouncing pledge made in the original document.
The added clause says that the SDF will be "maintained as an armed organisation" for Japan to take "necessary self-defence measures to defend our country's peace and independence, and ensuring the safety of the country and its people", reported Kyodo News Agency in an unofficial translation.
Japan's supreme law came into effect in 1947, and is the world's oldest unamended Constitution. It has been Mr Abe's long-cherished goal to amend the document, although domestic and foreign critics believe it will be the start of a slippery slope towards war.
The new clause will be added to the existing Article 9, which is seen as the cornerstone of the post-war charter and repudiates Japan's right to ever maintain "land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential". Under the charter, the Japanese "forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as the means of settling international disputes".
The LDP task force, led by Lower House lawmaker and former chief Cabinet secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, reached the consensus days before a party convention on Sunday. It comes amid deepening public mistrust towards Mr Abe, who is ensnared in a deepening cronyism scandal.
The Finance Ministry has admitted to having tampered with documents related to a land sale to ultra-nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen to build a new elementary school, with Mr Abe's wife Akie named as honorary principal. All mention of Mr Abe and his wife were scrubbed from 14 documents.
Lawmakers like former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba have argued for more extensive changes to the Constitution, and the benign change has been seen as a way for the LDP to make the idea of a revision more palatable to the public.
Mr Ishiba told reporters on Thursday that the proposal was ineffectual insofar as it does not answer the question of what the term "necessary self-defence measures" precisely means.
While the public has been roughly evenly split on whether the Constitution should be revised, media polls said a majority do not want the charter to be amended under Mr Abe's watch.
The Prime Minister has been doggedly pushing for constitutional revision, saying that it is necessary to put an end once and for all to questions over the legality of the SDF.
While Japan has stressed that its SDF solely keeps a defensive posture, the ballooning defence budget and recently-expanded mandate for the SDF to include "collective self-defence" have led to questions that the military has entered "unconstitutional" territory.
Yet even as a decision has been reached within the LDP, the way forward remains fraught. The party's next step will be to start negotiations with coalition partner, Komeito, which has been apprehensive on charter revision.
Further, a revision would require the support of two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers of Parliament, as well as a majority vote in a public referendum.
While the LDP and Komeito jointly have the required number in both the Lower and Upper Houses, detractors within both parties may scupper the vote. It is also uncertain that the public will vote in favour of the changes.
Besides Article 9, the LDP is also looking to revise three other areas - to make education more accessible, to review electoral districts that straddle different prefectures, and to grant the government more powers during a state of emergency.
Some LDP lawmakers like Mr Shoji Nishida have questioned the push for constitutional revision at this juncture. "The political situation is unstable, with the Moritomo Gakuen issue emerging to the forefront again," he told the Mainichi Shimbun. "Couldn't pushing forth with the proposal deal us a negative blow?"