Shinzo Abe, Japan's hawkish prime minister, yesterday told lawmakers he planned to change the post-second world war constitution that imposed pacifism on the nation, in a move likely to stir suspicion in China and beyond.
Abe, who thundered to general election victory in December, has long harboured ambitions to rewrite a document critics say hampers effective self defence. Its supporters say the constitution is a bulwark against the militarism that blighted Asia in the past century.
"I will start with amending Article 96 of the constitution," Abe told upper house lawmakers, referring to a clause stipulating that amendments require a two-thirds majority in parliament.
The well-funded and well-equipped military - one of the world's most technologically advanced - is referred to as the Self-Defence Forces (SDF), and is barred from taking aggressive action. Abe said before the election that he would look into making the SDF a full-fledged military, but the suggestion set alarm bells ringing in Asian countries subject to Japan's brutal military adventurism of the past.
American occupying forces imposed the constitution on Japan in the wake of the second world war, but its war-renouncing Article Nine became part of the fabric of national life, engendering a pacifism that remains dear to many Japanese.
Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority of lawmakers in both houses, and must be ratified by a referendum, where they can pass with a simple majority of those voting.
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner New Komeito have a more than two-thirds majority in the lower house after elections in December, but New Komeito and some LDP factions are cautious about amendments. The less powerful upper house is controlled by no single party.