The governing Liberal Democratic Party on Tuesday released a draft revision of Japan's pacifist constitution that for the first time since World War II would recognize the country's armed forces as a fully functioning military.
The constitution, originally written by the United States after the defeat of Japan in 1945, would continue to reject war as an option. But the new draft would remove limitations on the country's 240,000-member Self-Defense Forces, which have been defined as being strictly limited to defending Japan's home islands.
The new military status would explicitly authorize Japanese participation in foreign peacekeeping efforts, although the country has sent small troop contingents on such missions, including about 600 soldiers now serving in a noncombat capacity with the United States in Iraq. The constitutional draft would broaden the government's ability to send forces overseas; such an order now requires special legislation in parliament.
The revision also opens the door to a broader interpretation of the constitution, permitting what some call "collective self-defense" -- or coming to the military aid of other countries. The most likely beneficiary would be Japan's closest ally, the United States, which has urged Japan to adopt such measures. Changes in Japan's constitutional status would have major significance in the region, particularly in the event of a conflict between China and the United States over Taiwan.
"In addition to activities needed for self-defense . . . the defense forces can take part in efforts to maintain international peace and security under international cooperation, as well as to keep fundamental public order in our country," the draft says.
The revised constitution, released on the 50th anniversary of the LDP's founding, faces major hurdles and may not be approved for at least a year. Parliamentary approval requires a two-thirds vote by both the lower and upper houses, and the debate is likely to be highly emotional. New Komeito, the LDP's coalition partner since 1999, favors new clauses and refinements, rather than major changes, in Article 9 of the constitution, which deals with the military.
After parliamentary approval, the draft would also require majority approval in a national referendum.
The release of the draft by the LDP, which has governed the country for most of the post-World War II era, marked a significant turning point in the crusade to give Japan a higher international profile, commensurate with its status as the world's second-largest economy.
"Today, a major step was taken toward the revision of the constitution," Taku Yamasaki, an LDP lawmaker and adviser to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, told reporters.
The draft maintains language that defines the emperor of Japan, once revered as a divine being, as a symbol of the state. But the constitutional revision waters down the concept of separation of church and state, which would make it easier for sitting prime ministers to visit Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan's military dead, including World War II criminals. Koizumi's annual visits to Yasukuni have caused outrage in China and South Korea.
Officials in both those countries have expressed concern about the proposed constitutional language on the military, noting the rise to power of nationalist Japanese political leaders and a new sense of patriotism among the populace.
On Tuesday, the official New China News Agency described Japan's revision as a document "designed to provide legal support for its ambition of playing a greater political role on the global stage and of boosting the defense force's status."