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LDP moves on draft Constitution spark concerns of broadened SDF role

A Self-Defense Force parade is seen here in this file photo taken at the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Camp Asaka in Saitama Prefecture, Oct. 23, 2016. (Mainichi)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to see a revised Constitution come into force in 2020, the year when Tokyo hosts the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and has called for a clear definition of the existence of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in the supreme law as a key topic of discussion.

Even if the Diet is to initiate constitutional amendment, however, prospects of such a proposal winning a majority of votes in a national referendum are still nowhere in sight. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is considering adding to the Constitution a clause specifying that the SDF is "a minimum necessary level organization with force," with the aim of easing the sense of resistance among the public toward such revisions to the supreme law.

In order to provide for the SDF in the war-renouncing Constitution while retaining the second paragraph of Article 9, which prohibits Japan from possessing any war potential, it is necessary to strictly distinguish the SDF from war potential. A source close to the government has pointed out that it is "most difficult to write what 'the minimum necessary level' is for." The meaning of "the minimum necessary level" could change depending on how the purposes and missions of the SDF are defined in the supreme law. The opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Japanese Communist Party have fiercely objected to mentioning the SDF in the supreme law on the grounds that it could render the second paragraph of Article 9 a mere dead letter.

While the government of Prime Minister Abe has reiterated that Japan's exercising of the right to collective self-defense under security-related legislation would be limited to situations where Japan's existence is threatened, public opinion was sharply divided during the process of enacting the security legislation that opened the way for Japan to exercise its collective defense right. If the LDP draws up a draft constitutional clause on the SDF to conform to the highly controversial security laws, the commissions on the Constitution of both houses of the Diet will inevitably be thrown into turmoil.

Amid rising tensions surrounding North Korea, the Japanese government plans to introduce long-range cruise missiles that can be converted into weapons capable of striking an enemy base. The defense-related outlay in the fiscal 2018 draft budget has also hit a new high for the fourth consecutive year. Given these circumstances, opposition parties are likely to grill the government over whether the SDF, as it stands now, is "the minimum necessary level of force" to begin with. If a revised Constitution takes effect, the SDF's defense equipment could constantly become subject to constitutionality judgments.

A senior official of the LDP's Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution believes that removing the second paragraph from Article 9 would make constitutional reform further difficult, as such a move could trigger a backlash from the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito. In the meanwhile, defining the SDF as a "minimum necessary level organization with force" will not necessarily solve all the challenges that lie ahead for the LDP. There is no easy "shortcut" for the party to take before reaching the goal it has set for itself.

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