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Policy speech suggests PM trying to conceal ambition to revise Constitution

A policy speech that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered at the outset of the extraordinary Diet session that opened on Sept. 26 suggests that he is trying to conceal his ambition to revise the postwar Constitution.

    This is because supporters of the war-renouncing Constitution are growing increasingly wary of moves toward constitutional revisions as legislators in favor of amendment to the supreme law have secured enough seats necessary to initiate such amendments in both chambers of the Diet.

    "Both ruling and opposition parties should overcome party lines and deepen discussions at the commissions on the Constitution at both houses of the Diet. We must not become complacent. Legislators should exercise wisdom and build a bridge to the future," the prime minister said as he concluded his policy speech.

    Abe thus revealed his enthusiasm about constitutional amendment and urged opposition parties to participate in discussions on the issue.

    However, the prime minister stopped short of mentioning specific clauses that he wants to change out of fear that such proposals could stir protests from opposition parties and lessen the chance of revising the supreme law.

    When Abe returned to power in late 2012, he mentioned the possibility of easing the requirements for proposing constitutional revisions. Under Article 96 of the Constitution, revisions to the supreme law must be initiated by a concurring vote of two-thirds of all members of each chamber before being submitted for a referendum. The prime minister suggested that this should be lowered to half of all members of each house.

    However, Prime Minister Abe gave up on the idea after opposition parties and some within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) voiced opposition. The prime minister subsequently expressed enthusiasm about incorporating a clause that would extend the tenure of House of Representatives members if a serious natural disaster were to hit Japan after the chamber is dissolved for a snap election to respond to the calamity. However, this also stirred criticism that such a clause would excessively strengthen the power of the Cabinet.

    Therefore, Prime Minister Abe made absolutely no mention of constitutional revisions in his campaign speeches during the House of Councillors race this past July. He refrains from making statements on constitutional revisions and instead encourages the Diet to discuss the issue. Behind his cautious attitude is his awareness that constitutional revisions have become realistic, as he stated in an upper house Audit Committee in January this year.

    At a general meeting of LDP members of both houses prior to his speech, the prime minister urged the legislators to increase a sense of tension by touching on the success of Kaoru Icho, who won gold in the women's 58-kilogram freestyle wrestling event at the Rio Games.

    "We can learn lessons from the performances of athletes who come from behind as time is almost up to win gold medals. At the same time, we could lose at the very end," he said.

    The LDP fears that "if constitutional amendment was to be voted down in a referendum, which is held while the largest opposition party is opposing the move, Japan would become unable to ever revise the Constitution," as a former Cabinet member says.

    Therefore, Abe has appointed senior legislators, who attach importance to seeking cooperation with the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP), as negotiators with opposition parties over the issue.

    The lower chamber's Commission on the Constitution elected former Justice Minister Eisuke Mori of the LDP as its chairman on Sept. 26. Mori, who had served as head of the LDP Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution, is to be replaced by former Justice Minister Okiharu Yasuoka, who previously served as head of the lower house Commission on the Constitution.

    Chairmen of the Diet commissions are supposed to lead Diet discussions on constitutional revisions while the head of the LDP Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution is responsible for coordinating views within the party and negotiations with other parties. The appointments of Mori and Yasuoka, who place priority on forming an accord with opposition parties, have sent a message to opposition parties that the LDP has no intention of going ahead with debate on constitutional amendment in a high-handed manner.

    The LDP is set to begin efforts to narrow down clauses to be amended. However, the LDP draft of a new Constitution is likely to pose a challenge. The draft, which the LDP worked out in 2012 when it was an opposition party, calls for the establishment of national defense military forces and is of a highly conservative nature.

    LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai denied in an NHK TV program on Sept. 25 that the party will retract the draft, but pointed to the possibility of modifying the draft through negotiations with other parties.

    Still, it is difficult to narrow down clauses to be revised during the 66-day session when the legislature is supposed to deliberate intensively on important bills.

    "During this session, the schedule for constitutional revision will be clarified only a bit," says a source close to the ruling party.

    The LDP's coalition partner Komeito is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the matter, and wants to avoid standing out in talks on constitutional revisions, according to a senior member. "We should calmly consider the matter while watching the situations of the Diet and other political parties," Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi told reporters on Sept. 26.

    Komeito will reconvene its panel on the Constitution in October, but is expected to only hold study sessions for junior legislators and lecture meetings by outside experts.

    The DP is becoming increasingly cautious about participating in discussions on constitutional revisions with other parties.

    The DP is demanding that the LDP retracts its draft, which the main opposition party criticizes as disrespecting people's rights, raising the hurdle for negotiations between ruling and opposition parties on constitutional amendment.

    Newly elected DP leader Renho told reporters on Sept. 26, "The commissions on the Constitution aren't venues for discussing a draft worked out by a certain political party."

    During the recent DP leadership election, Renho hinted at her willingness to allow the DP to participate in discussions at the commissions, which would represent a departure from her predecessor Katsuya Okada's position to oppose any constitutional reform while Abe is in power.

    Once she assumed the leadership of the DP, however, Renho became cautious about constitutional revisions saying, "We have never proactively raised the priority of the matter."

    Renho has appointed former party Secretary-General Yukio Edano as a senior party official in charge of issues relating to the Constitution. Edano has kept criticizing Abe saying that the prime minister's behavior could destroy cooperation between ruling and opposition parties over constitutional revisions. Edano even sarcastically described Abe as the ultimate supporter of the current Constitution.

    As such, the DP is leaning toward resisting constitutional revisions led by Prime Minister Abe.

    Behind the move is the DP's attempt to avoid an intraparty conflict as opposition from within the DP to appointing former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda as party secretary-general is growing.

    The DP aims to "plan a future-oriented Constitution with the people." However, it is difficult to form a consensus among party members over the issue.

    Koichi Takemasa, who has been appointed as the second-in-command in the lower chamber's Commission on the Constitution, said, "We need to coordinate our views on the matter as a party. We should discuss relevant matters, including whether we should draft a new Constitution."

    However, opinion persists within the party that the postwar Constitution should be maintained, with a former Cabinet minister saying, "The current Constitution should be our counter-proposal to constitutional revisions."

    In an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun on Sept. 23, Renho said, "I don't think we are unable to participate in discussions unless we have coordinated views on the matter."

    However, if the DP fails to establish unified views on the issue, party members in favor of constitutional amendment could criticize the leadership for failing to show a counterproposal to the ruling bloc.

    Three other opposition parties with which the DP formed a united front in the July upper house election -- the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), the Social Democratic Party and the People's Life Party -- are supporting the current Constitution. As such, if the DP begins full-scale discussions on the matter, it could be unfavorable for maintaining cooperation between these parties.

    JCP Chairman Kazuo Shii has warned Renho not to be dragged into Abe's strategy of exchanging proposals on constitutional amendment between political parties and allowing the prime minister to take the initiative in the matter. "It is an important job for opposition parties to voice stiff opposition to bad politics," Shii told a party meeting on Sept. 26.

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