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Leaders' debate highlights sharp divides on pacifist Constitution's Article 9

The leaders of eight political parties are seen during a policy debate at the Japan National Press Club in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 8, 2017. (Mainichi)

The Oct. 8 policy debate among the heads of eight political parties highlighted serious differences over the Japanese Constitution's war-renouncing Article 9.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito as well as the conservative opposition Party of Hope and Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) are of the view that the postwar Constitution needs to be amended. However, the Party of Hope and Komeito voiced opposition to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's proposal to add a paragraph stipulating the existence of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to war-renouncing Article 9.

In explaining his SDF proposal, Abe said, "In-depth national debate on constitutional revisions is necessary. I tried to spur such debate."

However, Party of Hope leader and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who Abe is looking to for cooperation on amending the supreme law, stated, "As it is, I have some small questions... no... serious questions about going ahead with the proposal for a third paragraph" to Article 9 stipulating the SDF's existence. Koike also criticized Abe for seeking to add the SDF paragraph despite the LDP's long insistence that the defense forces do not violate Article 9's second paragraph, which bans Japan from possessing "war potential."

"Japan has the Act for Establishment of the Ministry of Defense. If the Constitution were to provide for the SDF alone, it would reverse the relationship between the ministry and the SDF," Koike said, pointing out the provision could increase the power of the SDF itself and endanger the principle of civilian control by the defense minister.

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi also stated during the debate, "Opinion polls by various news organizations show that not many people support the idea. Over half of the general public doesn't understand the proposal to write the definition of the SDF into the Constitution."

Yamaguchi also pointed out that consensus on the issue has not been reached even within the LDP.

Both the Party of Hope and Komeito are cautious about amending the war-renouncing clause, but their positions differ significantly on constitutional revisions overall.

Yamaguchi was wary of speeding up debate on constitutional revisions, saying, "Constitutional amendment should be initiated and a referendum should be held after forming sufficient consensus among members of the public. However, such consensus hasn't yet been formed."

On the other hand, the Party of Hope, which has made constitutional revisions to promote the decentralization of power part of its election platform, is enthusiastic about discussing the matter.

The prime minister also proposed on Oct. 7 to explicitly provide for civilian control of the SDF in Article 9. Therefore, there is room for discussions between Abe and Koike over revisions to the war-renouncing clause.

Nippon Ishin leader Ichiro Matsui, who also serves as Osaka governor, did not touch on the pros and cons of clearly stipulating the existence of the SDF, but declared that some opposition parties' refusal to discuss constitutional revisions under the Abe administration is "too childish."

If the prime minister chooses to focus on the decentralization of power and other amendment issues without sticking to adding a paragraph to Article 9, rapid progress may be made in constitutional debate mainly among the LDP, the Party of Hope and Nippon Ishin.

In the meantime, Yukio Edano, leader of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), spoke out against revising Article 9 to stipulate the SDF's existence.

"We can't support a proposal to revise the Constitution that would essentially rubber-stamp the security related bills," he said, referring to the legislative package passed by the Diet in 2015 opening the way for Japan's limited exercise of the right to collective self-defense. The CDP leader's view was shared by Japanese Communist Party Chairman Kazuo Shii, who said, "The proposal would legitimize the unconstitutional laws."

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