Thursday, December 8, 2005

TOKYO — Japan is embroiled in a national debate over its “no-war” constitution, with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party proposing amendments that would recognize an official role of the nation’s armed forces the first time since the end of World War II.

The current constitution was written by the U.S. occupation government in post-World War II Japan and has remained unchanged since its adoption in 1947. It renounces war and “the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) draft revision, issued on the party’s 50th anniversary late last month, still rejects war but would no longer limit Japan’s 240,000-member Self-Defense Forces being used exclusively for homeland defense.

The government could deploy its troops abroad to participate in international peacekeeping efforts and to assist military allies such as the United States.

“In addition to activities needed for self-defense … the defense forces can take part in efforts to maintain international peace and security under international cooperation,” says the revision proposed by the LDP, which has ruled Japan for most of the five decades since the party was founded in 1955.

Since 2004, however, Japan has dispatched about 550 noncombat troops to Iraq to help rebuild that war-torn country.

Although hawkish LDP members sought to put words such as “patriotism” and “Defense Force,” instead of “Self-Defense Force,” into the revised constitution, their proposals were rejected. Clause 1 of Article 9, the renunciation of war, was also kept. The LDP seems to place more priority on improving the chances of getting the revised constitution enacted.

A constitutional amendment requires passage by both houses of the Diet by at least two-thirds of the members. The draft would also require majority approval in a referendum.

Opinion polls show most Japanese favor constitutional revision, but a majority opposes changing Article 9, the “no-war” section.

According to a poll in early October by the daily Mainichi Shimbun, 58 percent of those surveyed said they support amending the constitution, but 62 percent opposed amending Article 9, slightly more than double the 30 percent in favor.

Furthermore, New Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, is likely to maintain both parts of Article 9 in its constitutional revision proposal, to be made public next year.

“We cannot support a self-defense military” as proposed by the LDP, said Akihiro Ota, the party’s acting secretary-general, on a nationwide talk show.

“We believe that the present constitution’s pacifism is important and intend to maintain both the first and second parts of Article 9,” he said.

The LDP revision also undermines provisions requiring the separation of government from religion. A change could make it easier for a prime minister to visit Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial in Tokyo dedicated in 1869 that enshrines about 2.5 million war dead killed since the overthrow of the shoguns — including seven World War II government and military officials executed as war criminals by the Allies following the Tokyo trials of 1946-48.

Japan’s relations with China and South Korea have been seriously damaged in recent years by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the shrine, observers say.

Meanwhile, Japan’s neighbors are paying close attention to its domestic debate on constitutional changes.

“Due to historical reasons, Asian countries have been closely following Japan’s moves to revise the constitution,” said Liu Jianchao, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman. “We believe that maintaining the route of peaceful development serves the fundamental interest of Japan and benefits the region’s peace and stability.”

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