- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2007

TOKYO — Despite a series of money and sex scandals involving his top aides, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has continued to push for his nation’s more active international role by revising Japan’s pacifist constitution.

On Wednesday as Japan marked the 60th anniversary of its U.S.-imposed constitution, Mr. Abe, the first prime minister born after World War II, said at a ceremony he wants a public debate on changing the constitution.

“I hope that we have an active debate on the constitution,” said the prime minister.

The constitution bans the use of military force as a means of settling international disputes. Two weeks ago, the lower house of parliament approved guidelines for amending the constitution, which requires a national referendum. Mr. Abe also said he wants to make constitutional change a campaign issue in the July upper house elections.

Since Mr. Abe took office in late September, Japan has gradually taken steps to enlarge its international role. The government upgraded the Defense Agency to a full-fledged ministry in January. While strengthening relations with the United States under Mr. Abe, Japan has bolstered security ties with Australia and India. Last month, the prime minister signed a defense pact with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, the first formal security agreement with a country other than the United States.

Last week, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force conducted a joint military exercise with the U.S. and Indian navies for the first time. Japan’s Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi was quoted as saying the “goodwill exercise” was designed to strengthen trust among the three countries and was not directed at any other country.

On Tuesday, two days before the prime minister’s visit to Washington, the Abe Cabinet approved a six-month extension of Japan’s naval mission to support U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan. Since November 2001, the Maritime Self-Defense Force has provided fuel for coalition warships in the Indian Ocean under a special anti-terrorism law.

Japan also dispatched the Self-Defense Forces on a humanitarian mission to southern Iraq from 2004 to 2006, letting Japanese soldiers enter a combat zone for the first time since World War II.

Despite his strong start, Mr. Abe’s popularity slipped due to sex and money scandals and his weak leadership. Some analysts suggested that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has lost its support even in the provinces, the ruling party’s traditional stronghold.

In rural Fukushima prefecture, Teruhiko Mashiko, a member of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, won in a landslide over Isamu Yamaguchi backed by the LDP and its junior coalition partner, New Komeito.

“More and more people in the provinces have begun to turn their back on the national government,” said Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst who gives about 300 lectures per year, many of which are held outside Tokyo.

Mr. Abe, a nationalist and staunch conservative, continues to work on changing the constitution, though more people are concerned about the widening economic gap, a looming welfare crisis and Japan’s shrinking population, according to analysts and opinion surveys. But critics say he failed to articulate his policy in his own words.

Mr. Abe “has changed by 180 degrees what he said before taking office, but claims he has not. So that is ambivalent and very difficult to understand,” said Koichi Kato, an influential LDP member and former secretary-general of the party. “He wanted to take a strong stance against China and said he would not compromise, but now he is very different. People will ask, ‘Where is the truth?’ ”

Moreover, Mr. Abe provoked an international uproar when he said there was no evidence that the Japanese military had coerced tens of thousands of Asian women into sexual slavery during World War II. But later he said he would adhere to the 1993 Kono Statement, Japan’s apology for the brothels. He also apologized for the suffering of the women.

Inflammatory statements by Japanese leaders continue to erode the country’s credibility, critics say, but it doesn’t seem to stop.

Last month, Foreign Minister Taro Aso suggested that U.S. diplomats in the Middle East would never solve the region’s problems because they have “blue eyes and blond hair.” He said that the Japanese, on the other hand, are trusted because they have “yellow faces” and had “never been involved in exploitation there, nor been involved in” combat there. Thus, “Japan is doing what Americans cannot do,” added Mr. Aso, who once said that he hopes to turn Japan into a country where “rich Jews” would want to live.

In February, Mr. Aso also described U.S. post-invasion plans for Iraq as “very immature.” Mainstream Japanese press, however, downplayed such statements.

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