Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Japan Leader Wants Changes to Constitution

Japan leader eyes move on constitution
By CHISAKI WATANABE, Associated Press Writer
Tue Dec 19, 12:30 PM ET

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday he wants to pass legislation next year that would allow a national referendum on changing Japan's pacifist Constitution.

Abe, in a speech marking the end of this year's parliamentary session, also said he aimed to amend the Constitution during his term in office.

He took office in September after winning a three-year term as ruling party president. The U.S.-drafted Constitution, which bars Japan from warfare overseas, has never been amended since taking effect in 1947.

"I want to revise the Constitution while I am in office, though it is a historic task," Abe said. "First, I want the legislation for a referendum to be passed in the next ordinary (parliamentary) session."

The Constitution stipulates that a referendum is required for constitutional change. Special legislation would be required for such a referendum to take place.

Abe wants to make it easier for the military to operate abroad, but he faces considerable political obstacles. Amending the Constitution requires two-thirds support in both houses of Parliament and majority backing in a national referendum.

Members of Abe's own Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, the New Komei Party, are strongly opposed to stripping the charter of its pacifist provisions.

Abe acknowledged the challenge ahead.

"We will negotiate with both ruling and opposition parties to reach a draft (of the revision). We need discussions among the parties. I'd also like to see a national debate on the issue," he said.

Constitutional change is a major plank in Abe's platform of giving Japan a larger diplomatic and military role in the world and bolstering its defense coordination with the United States, which bases 50,000 troops here.

It is not certain, however, how successful Abe's drive would be as some say Japan may simply change its interpretation of the Constitution to allow its military a wider role, rather than changing the Constitution.

During the speech, Abe also said that a series of bills passed by Parliament will form the foundation for building a new country, leaving its "postwar regime" behind.

"I believe that the passage of the bills marked a big step forward," he said.

Parliament's upper house passed bills last week that require schools to teach patriotism and upgrade the Defense Agency to a full ministry for the first time since World War II. Both bills are key elements of Abe's push to bolster Japan's international military role, build up national pride and distance the country from its post-1945 war guilt.

Abe said the bill to upgrade the Defense Agency to a ministry was "extremely significant" and was a sign that Japan's democracy has matured.

The bills have been controversial because of a strong undercurrent of caution in Japan to any efforts to strengthen the military or revive the pre-1945 style of nationalism that led Japan into its disastrous period of imperialism and colonialism.

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