Japan divided over amending Constitution

TOKYO, MAY 7. Every year on May 3, Constitution Day, Japan examines if public opinion has moved towards amending parts of the U.S.-drafted Constitution. At the end of the century, it seems, like much else in this society, the preference is for quiet pragmatism, so long as the statute book does not show it.

Most debate about Japan's Constitution swirls round Article 9. Article 9 is why the Japanese like to call this a ``peace'' or a war-renouncing Constitution. The debate about this Article typifies the absence of both, a national consensus to change it and, therefore, support for acquiescence for measures that flout Article 9. Some scholars and analysts prefer amending many other parts of the Constitution too.

Compared to previous attempts at collective introspection, this year saw far more attention paid to the issue of revision. A Constitutional Research Panel of the Lower House was packed and met for hours, before a packed public gallery too. Two of the original draftees, Ms Beate Sirota Gordon and Mr. Richard Poole, spoke to the panel. Their views too reflected a house divided on the issue of changing the 47-year-old document, or sticking with it. For the most part, the sticky issue is Article 9.

The Article says that the Japanese people ``forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or the use of force as a means of settling international disputes.'' It adds: ``Land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.''

Japan annually spends over yen four trillion (about $ 45 billions) on a military budget for the so-called ``self- defence forces.'' And, it hosts 32,000 U.S. forces. Next to the U.S., this is known to be the largest defence budget for any country. Nobody denies that Japan has ``land, sea and air forces, or other war potential.''

The nation's two largest mainstream papers reflect, as on other issues, the two poles, if one disregards the opinion held by the maverick and extreme right-wing Governor of Tokyo, Mr. Shintaro Ishihara. Mr. Ishihara does not have too many apparent takers of his view that Japan should do away with the Constitution lock, stock and barrel, because it was agreed to during U.S. occupation. Germany got rid of an Allied-drafted Constitution as soon as the Allied Forces left, but at least Germany was agreed on that.

The conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, in 1994, when it published a proposal for wide-ranging changes to the Constitution, was comfortable with the war-renouncing first part of Article 9, but suggested that the armed forces part be changed. It proposed that Japan admit that it has an ``organisation for self-defence.'' Six years later, in more formal proposals, the paper has suggested that Japan should take its cue from the centrist Opposition party and acknowledge that the country has ``armed forces for self- defence.''

The other end of the spectrum, the view reflected by the Asahi Shimbun, which claims to represent public opinion, as does its rival, does not want any revision to Article 9. The logic for this is more complex and indefinable. ``Although there has been a somewhat stronger inclination to support a vague suggestion that the Constitution should be revised, such a mood does not extend to Article 9 specifically,'' said the paper.