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Politics

Abe picks legislative vets to lead charge on constitution

Japanese leader turns to deal-makers to achieve elusive consensus

Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force personnel fire artillery during a training session. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to revise the nation's constitution to explicitly recognize the SDF.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to revamp the team leading his campaign to revise the country's pacifist constitution, tapping diplomats rather than ideologues for a partywide effort to move the stalled debate forward.

The incoming head of the lower house's Commission on the Constitution, Tsutomu Sato, is a veteran navigator of politics in the Diet. He chaired the Diet Affairs Committee of Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party for about three years, a feat achieved by only two predecessors, and the controversial 2015 legislation expanding defense powers passed during his tenure.

While parliamentary committee chairs often invoke their authority to call meetings even if ruling party and opposition lawmakers cannot come to terms, the Commission on the Constitution operates on the premise that both sides must agree to meetings. This means that consensus must be built before any formal discussion can take place.

The hope is that Sato's experience -- and the measure of trust among the opposition that he has won as a result -- will help him break the deadlock blocking debate on revising the constitution, a long-sought goal of Abe's.

The LDP's internal body on revising the constitution will be led by Hiroyuki Hosoda, marking his second stint in the post. The panel drew up a four-point revision proposal under his leadership in March 2018 that includes amending the war-renouncing Article 9 to explicitly recognize Japan's Self-Defense Forces.

Hosoda's status as head of the LDP's largest faction should help him round up support.

The lawmaker set to serve as the body's chief secretary, Takashi Yamashita, is part of the LDP faction led by former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who ran against Abe in last year's party leadership election.

Ishiba has asserted that he cannot accept writing the SDF into Article 9 without a clear explanation of how this squares with language that bars Japan from ever maintaining "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential."

Abe's previous attempt to lay the groundwork for revision with the October 2018 reshuffle was of little help. The prime minister tapped Hakubun Shimomura, a conservative and a close ally, to lead the LDP's constitutional revision panel.

But shortly after taking the post, Shimomura accused opposition lawmakers who refused to discuss the issue of "walking off the job," sparking a fierce backlash.

By choosing lawmakers like Sato and Hosoda, Abe looks to signal that he wants to engage the opposition in dialogue and move the ball forward in parliament. The entire LDP will be mobilized to get debate going, including officials not involved much previously, such as the party's secretary-general and policy chief.

"We must direct the flow of the constitutional revision" effort, policy chief Fumio Kishida told reporters Wednesday after a meeting of party leaders.

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