TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe secretly summoned on April 7 a Diet member he has known for many years to his office. Abe told the lawmaker about his ideas for amending the Constitution of Japan, saying a provision to establish the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces should be added to Article 9 while keeping the current two paragraphs of the article intact.
Around the same time, one conservative lawmaker sounded out Abe's intentions concerning constitutional revision. "Are you aiming to add a third paragraph to Article 9?" asked the lawmaker.
Nodding, Abe said, "People probably think I won't do it, but I'm going ahead with this. We have a one-time opportunity. It must be something that appeals to the hearts of the people."
Timing is everything
Since the ruling camp's victory in the upper house election in the summer of 2016 gave him the two-thirds majority in both houses needed to initiate a constitutional amendment, Abe had been waiting for the right time to embark on tackling the huge political challenge of amending the postwar constitution. The document has never been changed since it came into force in 1947.
Until recently, Abe had been distancing himself from the parliamentary debate between the ruling and opposition parties over the divisive topic, waiting for bipartisan consensus to emerge. But the glacial progress of the talks finally prodded him into action.
Speaking in a video message to a meeting of a conservative group affiliated to Nippon Kaigi, a pro-amendment right-wing lobby that supports Abe, on May 3, the Constitution Day national holiday, Abe announced his plan to seek an amendment to establish the legal status of the SDF firmly in the country's charter. He stressed the importance of the current generation making this move so that there is no doubt in the future about the constitutionality of the SDF.
Abe added that he wants to achieve this goal by 2020.
In Japan, there are a string of holidays starting at the end of April and continuing into the first week of May. Abe typically has made overseas trips during this time. This year, the Foreign Ministry was planning for the prime minister to visit four Nordic countries as well as Russia and Britain.
But Abe decided to skip Nordic countries, instead choosing to be in Japan on May 3. The recording of his nine-minute video address was done in the afternoon on May 1.
Later, Abe told a close friend that he had long been considering the idea of making such an announcement on May 3.
Rewriting the constitution, which was drafted and established during the Allied occupation of Japan after World War II, has been Abe's long-held political ambition.
But he decided to focus on the constitutionality of the SDF after reading the results of a survey showing many Japanese constitutional scholars regard the defense forces as unconstitutional in the summer of 2015, when debate was raging over national security legislation the prime minister was advocating.
Abe was also moved by a story he heard about a child of an SDF member who asked about a description in a school textbook saying the SDF is unconstitutional.
The constitutional requirement for initiating an amendment is "a concurring vote of two-thirds or more of all the members of each House." After the summer 2016 election, pro-amendment forces meet this stipulation.
One major political hurdle for Abe to overcome is weak support for revising Article 9 within Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Komeito is the political arm of the lay Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, which has many followers who are skeptical about the idea.
Former Komeito chief Akihiro Ota served as a mediator between Abe and the party during Abe's first stint as prime minister in 2006 to 2007. Abe and Ota hit it off well.
In a meeting with Abe, Ota indicated Komeito would accept the proposal to add a provision about the status of the SDF to the constitution.
But this idea could be met with opposition from conservative politicians who are calling for eliminating the second paragraph of Article 9, which bans Japan from maintaining armed forces to accomplish the aim of the first paragraph, which states, "The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation."
In a mid-May meeting with a friend, Abe expressed confidence in winning support for his proposal from the conservative wings of his party. "Since I'm the most conservative hard-liner within the LDP, they will likely accept, if grudgingly (my amendment proposal)," he said.
In fact, one conservative opinion leader has already come around and expressed his support for Abe's idea.
Abe is also concerned that if he fails to act now, there is no guarantee his successors will take up the cause.
In April, a close aide to the premier warned him about waiting too long for the right time, reminding him of how former Prime Minister Eisaku Sato (1901-1975) avoided tackling the challenge after his elder brother, Nobusuke Kishi (1896-1987), Abe's maternal grandfather, failed to achieve his ambition to amend the constitution while serving as prime minister.
"As we have more than two-thirds of the seats of both houses, there is no choice for us but to seek a constitutional amendment," the aide said.
On May 12, Abe told Okiharu Yasuoka, the LDP lawmaker who heads the party's task force for promoting constitutional amendments, to work out a specific proposal by the end of the year, stressing the importance of making it acceptable to the public.
In its meeting on June 6, the task force decided to focus on four key issues, including the SDF's status, in drafting the proposal.
But actually gaining support from two-thirds of the members of the ruling parties may prove to be more difficult than expected.
Ominously, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who is believed to have ambitions to succeed Abe, has voiced his skepticism about the plan.
The issue could emerge as a major political risk for Abe, who is expected to seek reelection as LDP president to secure his term as prime minister until the autumn of 2021.