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Japan Takes Step Towards Revising Constitution

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TOKYO—Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scored a victory in his drive to ease the pacifist constitution's restrictions on military actions overseas on Monday when parliament enacted a law outlining steps for a referendum on revising the post-World War Two charter.

Abe, at 52 Japan's first prime minister born after the war, has made rewriting the 1947 constitution a key element in his efforts to boost Japan's role in global security affairs, limited for decades by the constitution's pacifist Article 9.

Under the new law, approved by parliament's upper house on Monday, no vote on revising the constitution would be held for at least three years, but its enactment will increase momentum for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's push to state clearly in the charter Japan's right to maintain a military.

"Since this will take effect in three years, what is important is to deepen the debate among the people even further," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a news conference.

Abe has said the LDP would make constitutional reform a focal point in an election for the upper house in July, his first big electoral test since taking office last September.

Abe has also made revising the constitution a core element of his drive to shed a U.S.-imposed "postwar regime" that conservatives say stressed individualism at the expense of Japanese values such as devotion to the public good.

The constitution, drafted by U.S. occupation authorities during one frantic week in February 1947, has never been altered since it took effect on May 3 of that year.

Changing the charter requires approval by two-thirds of the members of both houses of parliament as well as half the voters in a national referendum.

Article 9 renounces the right to wage war to resolve international disputes and bans the maintenance of a military.

But the article has been stretched not only to permit armed forces for self-defence, but to allow overseas military activities, including the deployment by Abe's predecessor of troops on a non-combat mission to a de facto war zone in Iraq.

Japan's close security ally, the United States, has made clear it would welcome revision of Article 9, but Japanese voters remain cautious.

A survey published earlier this month by the liberal Asahi newspaper showed that while 58 percent of respondents favoured some changes to the constitution, 49 percent opposed changing Article 9 against 33 percent who backed revising it.

Much of the debate has focused on Article 9, but Abe's opponents also say proposed changes would strengthen the hand of the state at the expense of individual civil rights.

Abe has pledged to revise the constitution while in office, but with any changes set to take years, he is also moving to alter a long-standing government interpretation that bans Japan from exercising its right to collective self-defence, or defending an ally under attack.

Shunji Yanai, head of a panel set up to advise Abe on the topic, told Reuters earlier this month that the experts were likely to recommend revising the interpretation so that Japan could, for example, shoot down North Korean missiles aimed at the United States rather than at Japanese territory.

That move might not go down well with voters, though.

A survey by Kyodo news agency published on Sunday showed that 62 percent of respondents wanted the current interpretation to remain intact, up 7.4 points from an April poll.

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