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Abe's trial and error tactics on constitutional amendment reflect his long-held desire

In this April 4, 2017 file photo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to reporters at the prime minister's office. (Mainichi)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is still struggling to figure out specific ways to revise Japan's Constitution -- his deeply held desire ever since he assumed the premiership for the first time in 2006 -- even though the pro-constitutional amendment forces currently occupy two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Diet, enough to initiate a referendum.

While Abe repeats remarks that suggest he is ready to make constitutional revision come true, he maintains an observer position in terms of Diet discussions on the matter.

Abe made a speech at the assembly of a multipartisan association to create a new constitution, chaired by former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, on May 1.

"We have opposition lawmaker Mr. (Nobuyuki) Fukushima (of the Democratic Party) with us here. It would be best if everyone can agree" on constitutional amendment, Abe said.

The largest opposition Democratic Party, along with other opposition forces including the Japanese Communist Party, is against constitutional revision under the Abe government. Nevertheless, the prime minister hopes that those parties outside the "pro-amendment camp" show willingness to compromise on the matter, because he believes that initiating a bill to revise the supreme law with as many yea votes as possible in the Diet would lead to success for pro-amendment forces in a referendum.

Prime Minister Abe appeared to have jumped the gun on constitutional amendment debate around the time his second Cabinet was launched in December 2012 by mentioning revising Article 96 -- which stipulates that two-thirds majority votes in both houses of the Diet are necessary to initiate a referendum -- to specify a simple majority. He has not mentioned it recently, however, after a serious backlash not only from the opposition and constitutional scholars, but also the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s coalition partner Komeito.

Furthermore, Abe refrained from promoting constitutional amendment during the campaign for the 2016 House of Councillors election, in which whether pro-revision forces would secure a two-thirds majority was a particular focus point.

The LDP has also softened its stance on the matter. At the resumption of the constitutional commissions in both chambers of the Diet in 2016, the ruling party decided to shelve its strongly conservative revision draft released in 2012. The party also announced that it would not lead discussions at commission meetings based on the argument that the postwar Constitution was forced onto Japan by the Allied Powers -- a view shared within the party. This significant compromise on Abe's claims reflects his desire to put a plan to propose a bill for constitutional amendment into his political agenda.

The LDP looks to narrow down a list of revisions during the regular Diet session next year and draw up an amendment draft as early as possible. However, House of Representatives Constitution Commission meetings are behind schedule, while the upper house commission has not been able to hold a single meeting.

Meanwhile, Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi addressed an audience in the streets of Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on May 2, saying, "We don't mean to reject constitutional amendment if changes would make the Constitution better." At the same time, he said, "there's no consensus over what to change. It's important to hold in-depth discussions on how the country should be and ideology on that subject." Enthusiasm for revision has always differed between the ruling party and its junior coalition partner.

Support for an "emergency clause" -- which would allow exceptional extensions of terms for lawmakers in case of an emergency such as a natural disaster -- has spread within Komeito, but upper house members, including Yamaguchi, have expressed negative views on the idea.

The "two-thirds majority card" may be lost if the LDP loses seats in the next lower house election, which will be held sometime before December 2018. Prime Minister Abe's seemingly restrained attitude towards constitutional amendment reflects nothing but his strong motivation to revise the Constitution.

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