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Abe's party set to pursue changes to war-renouncing charter

Contentious proposal aims to clarify status of Japan's Self-Defense Forces

Japan's Liberal Democratic Party faces objections from within and without to its proposed approach to revising the country's pacifist constitution.

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's party is poised to propose constitutional revisions that would enshrine the nation's armed forces into the charter but retain its war-renouncing pledge, a product of compromise focused on not alienating a skeptical public.

After three hours of debate, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party body tasked with constitutional amendment voted Thursday to allow its chief, Hiroyuki Hosoda, to move forward with its leading proposal. 

The revisions cover four key areas -- changing war-renouncing Article 9, eliminating electoral districts straddling different prefectures, bolstering education and expanding government powers in times of emergencies.

Abe pushed for keeping the Article 9's second paragraph rejecting "war potential" while writing the Self-Defense Forces into the document. But Shigeru Ishiba, former LDP secretary-general and Abe's chief critic, and his allies argued for a more straightforward approach of simply dropping that language and positioning the SDF as "war potential."

At the meeting, the majority of the members backed keeping the second paragraph, seeing it as more acceptable to the Japanese people. In short, those eager to see constitutional revisions become reality managed to override ideological purists.

The LDP's proposal is to have the war-renouncing Article 9's second paragraph -- which abjures the right to ever maintain "war potential" -- stipulate that those limits will "not impede the use of necessary self-defense measures" and declare Japan will maintain the SDF as "an armed force for that purpose."

However, this new phrase, "necessary self-defense measures," could also invite fresh questions regarding the scope of the right to self-defense allowed under the constitution.

In advocating preserving the second paragraph, Abe told the Diet that changing that section instead would open the door "for full approval of the right to collective self-defense," referring to the right to defend allies under attack. But his alternative also raises a similar question regarding the "self-defense measures."

The debate is certain to focus on whether the "self-defense measures" cover the right to collective defense, Ishiba told reporters after the meeting, criticizing the decision.

Even with the second paragraph kept in tact, the LDP must explain its rationale for adding the new language. Opposition parties could argue that the addition could expand the scope of SDF activity without any restraint. 

Writing the SDF into the constitution was seen as a measure that could win easy public support. But this also comes with caveats. Some say enshrining the SDF in the document would risk elevating its status over other administrative bodies. The Ministry of Defense, for instance, was created by standard legislation, not the constitution. As the SDF's commander in chief is the prime minister, recognizing only that force in the charter would create problems in terms of keeping civilian control over the military, some note.

Moreover, as long as paragraph two of Article 9 remains, so would some constitutional scholars' fundamental objection to the government's interpretation that the SDF does not count as "war potential."

Constitutional commissions in parliament "cannot act unless the LDP puts forward a plan," the task force's secretary-general, Takumi Nemoto, said after the meeting. Officials hope to achieve internal consensus before a party convention Sunday, prioritizing the goal of starting negotiations with other parties as soon as possible. But it is unclear how talks will go with the LDP's coalition partner Komeito, let alone the opposition.

Constitutional revisions can be proposed with two-thirds support in both chambers of the Diet, and then must win a majority vote in a referendum. The path to getting there remains fraught. 

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