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LDP's 'springboard' draft Constitution specifies SDF in Article 9

Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Okiharu Yasuoka speaks at a meeting of the party's Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision of the Constitution, which he chairs, at LDP headquarters in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on June 21, 2017. (Mainichi)

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s "springboard" draft that will serve as a starting point for amendments to the war-renouncing Japanese Constitution, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his intent to put into effect in the year 2020, has been revealed.

The revelations came on June 21, following reports of a video message from the prime minister presented to a group calling for constitutional revision on May 3 saying he wanted the Self-Defense Forces (SDF)'s existence to be specified in Article 9, in addition to the two paragraphs that are already in place.

The LDP leadership's plan is to define the SDF in the second paragraph of Article 9 as "an organization using the bare minimum of force necessary to protect the state," and to explicitly mention that the first paragraph, which currently reads, "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes," must not be interpreted as a prohibition of the existence of the SDF, and to use this as a pillar in its debate on constitutional revision.

Some say, however, that such a proposal is inconsistent with the second paragraph of Article 9 -- which reads, "in order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained" -- as well as with the LDP's 2012 draft Constitution, signaling a rocky road ahead in the debate on constitutional amendments. A draft is set to be completed as early as September.

In his May 3 video message, Prime Minister Abe said, "The idea of specifying the SDF while maintaining the first and second paragraphs (of Article 9) is worth being put to national debate." According to an LDP source, the springboard draft was written with care not to overstep, as much as possible, the boundaries set by Article 9 of the Constitution currently in place.

Because paragraph 2 of Article 9 prohibits Japan from maintaining "war potential," administrations since the Japanese Constitution went into effect in 1947 have all interpreted the provision to mean that the SDF is "an organization using a bare minimum of force" that does not reach "war capability." This interpretation of the article was maintained even when the controversial security legislation passed in 2015 redefined the role of the SDF. An LDP source says the springboard draft aims to explicitly state this interpretation of the SDF, and to contain the SDF's nature and role within the current interpretation of Article 9.

An additional goal of the rough draft is to explicitly specify the existence of the SDF, while emphasizing that the second paragraph of Article 9 does not ban or deny the SDF's existence. Some say that noting that Japan will "maintain the SDF to the extent that it does not violate the preceding paragraphs (of Article 9)" will almost have the same effect as the springboard draft.

Meanwhile, there are other proposed revisions, such as stating that Japan "will maintain the SDF regardless of the stipulations in the preceding paragraphs" or that Japan "will maintain the SDF (for its objectives)." Because the draft Constitution the LDP released in 2012 changed paragraph 2 of Article 9, these proposals, out of consideration for the party's conservatives, try to prevent the current second paragraph from impacting the SDF. Such proposals, however, put the second paragraph at risk of becoming a dead letter, and some say that could invite protest from the LDP's junior coalition party Komeito and opposition parties, and thus prove detrimental to the LDP's efforts to revise the Constitution.

If the existence of the SDF is written into Article 9 in a manner that does not influence paragraphs 1 and 2, it would not change the current state of affairs -- which is why there is deeply rooted sentiment within Komeito that constitutional revision is unnecessary. Furthermore, critics of constitutional revision are expected to raise concerns that specifying the existence of the SDF in the Constitution could lead to the possibility of an expanded interpretation of the SDF's role, while proponents may worry that if a draft Constitution were to be voted down in a national referendum, it could be taken as a renunciation of national security legislation.

At a June 21 meeting of the LDP Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision of the Constitution, some agreed with the proposal to explicitly state the existence of the SDF, while many others voiced concern that doing so was inconsistent with the second paragraph of Article 9. Shigeru Ishiba, former LDP secretary-general, warned against hasty debate, saying, "I think it's possible to specify the existence of the SDF in the Constitution, but the essence of the issue here is the question of what constitutes a 'military.' We need to answer that question thoroughly."

At a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan (FCCJ) following the Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision of the Constitution meeting, Chairman Okiharu Yasuoka revealed for the first time that the LDP leadership's hope was to submit a motion to amend the Constitution to the Diet before the end of next year's ordinary session of the Diet.

"Once specific proposals come out, the Japanese public will be understanding," Yasuoka said. "I believe that a general push to speed up constitutional revision will emerge."

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