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Politics

Abe renews focus on Japan's constitution after cabinet relaunch

Key role falls to LDP's Nikai, who kept party post after touting amendments

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, stands with members of his new cabinet in Tokyo on Sept. 11. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO -- After debuting a revamped cabinet on Wednesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to fulfill his long-held ambition of amending Japan's war-renouncing constitution.

"It is a difficult challenge, but I will surely achieve it," Abe told reporters at his official residence.

The Japanese leader expressed anticipation that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party will advance the debate in the parliamentary session that convenes Oct. 4.

"The LDP should display strong leadership in the constitutional committees toward crafting the draft amendments," Abe said. Prior to such proposals being submitted, "I wish to have a lively debate across party lines."

Among other changes, Abe seeks to add language to Article 9 of the constitution that clarifies the role of the Japan Self-Defense Forces. But the public is sharply divided on the question of revising the pacifist charter.

Enacting an amendment requires a two-thirds majority in both legislative chambers, followed by a simple majority in a referendum. To shepherd the agenda through those hurdles, Abe retained Toshihiro Nikai as the LDP's secretary-general.

To Abe, Nikai had appeared to have reservations about amending the constitution. Nikai sought to change that impression -- and keep his job -- by organizing a 1,000-person rally in support of such amendments in his home prefecture of Wakayama.

Nikai relayed those plans in mid-August to Hakubun Shimomura, one of Abe's close allies and head of an LDP panel on revising the constitution at the time. When the prime minister later heard of Nikai's rally, he could hardly contain his surprise.

"Is that true?" the prime minister said.

LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, left, attends a meeting Wednesday with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other members of the ruling party's leadership.   © Kyodo

Abe replaced Taro Kono as foreign minister with Toshimitsu Motegi, who was the minister in charge of economic revitalization and doubled as Japan's point man for trade negotiations. Kono was appointed as the new defense minister.

While Motegi scored a major victory by reaching a tentative trade agreement with the U.S. last month, Kono has been caught in the middle of deteriorating relations between Japan and South Korea.

Matters came to a head on Aug. 22 when South Korea chose not to renew a pact with Japan for sharing military intelligence. Seoul's decision "reflects its total misapprehension of the current regional security environment, which is extremely regrettable," Kono said in a statement that day.

The pointed commentary was seen as an appeal by Kono to remain on the job, knowing that some in the LDP anticipated his replacement by Motegi. Posts in support of Kono flooded social media, and Abe is acutely attuned to online opinion.

The idea to oust Kono entirely and hand his position to Motegi was scrapped, since it might have sent the wrong signal to South Korea.

"He remained as a post-Abe candidate [for prime minister]," said Finance Minister Taro Aso, who is also the unofficial head of the LDP faction that counts Kono as a member.

Motegi, another potential successor to Abe, told reporters Wednesday that he plans to deepen the Japan-U.S. alliance while dealing with the North Korean threat and working diplomatically with neighbors South Korea, Russia and China.

"I will build a trust-based relationship with each nation's foreign minister" at the U.N. General Assembly later this month, he said.

Shinjiro Koizumi, the newly appointed environmental minister, also rose as a candidate to succeed Abe. At 38, the telegenic lawmaker is the youngest man to serve as a cabinet minister in postwar Japan.

Abe was once hesitant to take on Koizumi as a minister since the latter voted against him twice during intraparty leadership races. On the other hand, adding a well-known politician to the cabinet would boost the profile of all the post-Abe candidates.

During Wednesday's news conference, Abe said he would task ministries with developing sweeping entitlement reforms.

The prime minister also reiterated his commitment to raising Japan's consumption tax rate to 10% from 8% in October.

"If the downside risks to the global economy surface, I will enact policies that are both optimum and responsive," he said.

Certain food and drinks will be unaffected by the rate increase. But the exemption does not apply to alcohol and restaurant food, raising concern that the tax scheme will cause confusion among consumers and retailers alike.

"I will take all possible measures in preparing to introduce" the tax hike, Abe said. "I will endeavor to explain it fully."

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