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PM's call for revisions to Article 9 of Constitution puzzle even ruling parties

Remarks made by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his video message unveiled on May 3 to the effect that he aims to revise the Constitution including its war-renouncing Article 9 and ensure the revision will come into force in 2020 have perplexed ruling coalition legislators.

There is no clear road map toward achieving the goal set by the prime minister. Attention has been focused on whether the prime minister's move will help speed up Diet discussions on constitutional revisions or make it more difficult for ruling and opposition parties to agree on the issue.

Shortly after the July 2016 House of Councillors election, Prime Minister Abe told an acquaintance who visited his office that he was aiming to add a third paragraph to Article 9 to specify the existence of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). During the campaign period for the election, the prime minister had refrained from mentioning the constitutional issue. However, the prime minister had apparently been considering the timing of announcing his intentions since after the election.

So why did the prime minister declare his intention in the video message released on May 3? A senior ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) legislator, who had previously served as a Cabinet minister, said, "He appears to have lost his patience with the lack of progress in discussions at the commissions on the Constitution in both chambers of the Diet."

Debate on constitutional revisions has not been progressing at the House of Representatives Commission on the Constitution as the LDP had planned, due to the fallout from a conflict between the ruling and opposition parties in other Diet panels. The senior LDP legislator believes that the prime minister made the remarks with the aim of putting pressure on his own party prior to the resumption of discussions at the lower house commission on May 11 after deeming that the panel would never be able to narrow down clauses to be revised under current circumstances.

Amid rising tensions over the North Korean situation, the prime minister may also have tested the waters by underscoring the need to change Article 9, in a bid to gain public support for constitutional revisions in a referendum.

The prime minister's move also appears to be aimed at pressuring Komeito to support revisions to Article 9. Komeito has adopted a policy of retaining the basic framework of the Constitution and adding some clauses to make up for the supreme law's shortcomings. In line with this policy, Komeito previously proposed to add a third paragraph on the SDF to Article 9. Paragraph 1 of Article 9 renounces war and Paragraph 2 bans Japan from possessing any war potential.

As such, it is difficult for Komeito, the LDP's junior ruling coalition partner, to voice stiff opposition to Abe's idea.

In an NHK program aired on May 3, Komeito deputy leader Kazuo Kitagawa expressed an understanding of Abe's idea, saying, "There are very few people who say the SDF is unconstitutional."

However, Kitagawa expressed reservations about proactively supporting Abe's remarks. "There is room for considering whether to specify the existence and roles of the SDF in the Constitution right away."

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi emphasized in a street speech in Tokyo on May 3 that the matter awaits Diet discussion. "Today's Constitution Day, so the leaders of various political parties have expressed their own views on the issue. Mr. Abe expressed enthusiasm (about revisions)," he said.

Komeito is apparently reluctant to mention revisions to Article 9 for now because it struggled to persuade its backers to support its cooperation with the LDP in enacting security legislation that has opened the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense in a limited way.

Many in political circles as well as observers are skeptical about whether the prime minister is truly aiming to revise Article 9.

Shortly after the second Abe Cabinet was launched in late 2012, the prime minister mentioned revising Article 96 -- which stipulates that a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of the Diet is necessary to initiate constitutional amendment -- to lower the hurdle to a simple majority.

However, after deeming that the idea could not win public support, Prime Minister Abe stopped mentioning specific items in the supreme law that he thinks should be amended.

In a TBS program broadcast in June last year, the prime minister said, "It's difficult to revise Article 9 under current circumstances."

In an opinion poll that the Mainichi Shimbun conducted in April, those who do not think the war-renouncing Article 9 should be revised outnumbered those who are in favor of such a move.

Abe dared to mention revisions to the clause that the public is cautious about revising in an apparent bid to demonstrate that he has the initiative in revising the Constitution.

At the same time, the prime minister said, "Higher education must be open to all members of the public," while keeping in mind the opposition Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party)'s aim to amend the supreme law to make education tuition-free. By expressing support for the policy proposed by Nippon Ishin, which is relatively close to the Abe government, the prime minister is trying to prevent Komeito from distancing itself from the LDP.

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