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After 20 years of trial and error, Abe taking steps toward revising Constitution

In the 20-plus-years of struggle to make his long-held ambition -- revising Japan's pacifist Constitution -- come true, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tactically changed his attitude in addressing the issue, while his past comments show his commitment to constitutional amendment.

    Prime Minister Abe has shown interest in revising Article 9 of the Constitution that renounces Japan's military force ever since he was first elected to the House of Representatives in a 1993 election. In a lower house Committee on Foreign Affairs meeting in October 1993, Abe said, "What has maintained Japan's national security? It is important for us to reflect on the reality and continue discussions (on the Constitution)." After assuming the premiership in September 2006, Abe stated that the Self-Defense Forces should be inscribed in Article 9 during a party leader debate in the Diet.

    Why does Prime Minister Abe want to amend the Constitution? He once made his reason clear in a remark in July 2006 when he was chief Cabinet secretary, in which he said, "While we have achieved economic growth, we have postponed making changes to the Constitution and other issues. I hope to accomplish what my father (former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe) or my grandfather (former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi) could not accomplish."

    For Shinzo Abe, who believes that the current Constitution was imposed on Japan by the Allied Powers General Headquarters during its occupation of the country, the Constitution is the epitome of Japan's postwar regime. He argued in a lower house Commission on the Constitution meeting in May 2000 that he intended to have an across-the-board review of the supreme law starting from the preamble, saying, "Having the Constitution created at the hands of the United States as Japan's supreme law has negatively affected the psyche of the Japanese people." Abe attempted drafting revisions to the preamble together with former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone when the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) formulated its first draft on constitutional amendment.

    Abe succeeded in passing the law regarding the referendum for constitutional amendment during his first stint as prime minister, setting out a path toward changing the Constitution. After a series of scandals involving Cabinet ministers, however, the Abe government lost its momentum, leading to the LDP's crushing defeat in the 2007 upper house election. Abe resigned shortly after the 2007 poll due to health issues.

    After the LDP lost a majority in the lower house and became an opposition party in 2009, the party sought ways to rebuild itself centering on conservative forces, and it put together the second constitutional amendment draft in 2012. The LDP was in a grim mood at the time as the party endured a period of being in the opposition camp, and only few experts paid attention to its second draft.

    However, the then Democratic Party of Japan, which took over the government in 2009, lost power quicker than expected and faced a devastating defeat in the lower house election at the end of 2012. With an election win and a two-thirds majority in the lower chamber held by the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito, Prime Minister Abe launched his second Cabinet and first aimed at revising Article 96 of the Constitution that stipulates the procedures for constitutional revisions. In other words, he tried to lower the bar to change the Constitution by bringing down the "two-thirds majority" threshold in both houses of the Diet necessary for initiating constitutional revisions to "a majority" in order to make it easier to change other articles.

    Abe's desire to change the rule before the contents of the Constitution sparked criticism as cheating and even Komeito frowned on the idea. He eventually became quiet about Article 96 before the 2013 upper house race.

    Subsequently, Prime Minister Abe became reluctant to talk about specific articles he wished to change. He said the establishment of an emergency clause was "an important issue" during an upper house Committee on Budget session in November 2015, but has never specified what the clause would include.

    While the condition for the Diet to initiate constitutional revisions has been set, the Constitution will not be changed unless a majority of voters says yes to the idea in a referendum. Some LDP members worry that if constitutional revisions get rejected on the first attempt, it will become forever impossible to revise the Constitution.

    Prime Minister Abe has expressed his intention to leave, for the time being, the selection of articles for revision up to the ruling and opposition parties in the Commissions on the Constitution in both chambers of the Diet.

    It has been over 20 years since Abe, as a dashing conservative politician, was elected for the first time. Now that he has become an experienced lawmaker, Abe is skillfully steering the political world in the direction that his heart desires.

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