Koji Sasahara  /  AP
Lawmakers applaud Monday at the Upper House plenary session in Tokyo as Japan's parliament passed guidelines for amending the country's pacifist constitution.
updated 5/14/2007 3:53:48 PM ET 2007-05-14T19:53:48

Japan’s parliament laid the groundwork Monday for amending the country’s pacifist constitution, boosting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to give the armed forces a larger global role, but adding to critics’ concerns about a resurgent Japanese militarism.

The country’s 1947 constitution was drafted by U.S. occupation officials after World War II, and it has never been amended. Many Japanese credit the charter’s pacifist clause, Article 9, with keeping the country out of war since 1945.

Though many more steps are required to change the charter, critics and experts warn a constitutional change could rattle Asian neighbors with bitter memories of Japanese imperialism in the past century.

“Although Japan doesn’t have the intent of becoming a military power, revising the constitution could be seen by neighboring countries as a move toward militarism,” said Hiro Katsumata, a defense analyst at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

On Monday, the largely ceremonial upper house of the parliament approved legislation passed last month by the ruling party-controlled lower house.

The legislation allows the parliament to work on drafts of amendments for three years, but bans parliamentary votes on the issue for that time period. Then, a two-thirds support in the legislature and a majority in a national referendum would be needed to change the charter.

The Monday vote gave a needed political victory to Abe, who has championed strengthening military ties with the United States and a more prominent Japanese role in peacekeeping. Abe has also enacted measures to teach patriotism in classrooms and to upgrade the Defense Agency to a full ministry for the first time since World War II.

The conservative leader’s approval ratings have suffered in recent months. His ruling Liberal Democratic Party faces upper house elections in July.

Call for debate about changes
Abe applauded the vote, saying the next step is to “engage in a calm but wide-ranging debate” about possible revisions. During the vote, about 500 protesters — including Buddhist monks and students — rallied outside the parliament, accusing Abe of aiming to change the constitution to allow Japan to go to war.

The constitution bans the use of military force as a means of settling international disputes, and special legislation is currently needed for Japanese soldiers to participate in peacekeeping and other missions abroad.

Abe’s party has promoted weakening Article 9 to allow more peacekeeping missions, and perhaps to let Japanese troops come to the aid of an ally such as the United States. Japan is now barred from doing so.

The country has already taken steps despite the current constitutional restrictions.

Japan dispatched troops on a humanitarian mission to Iraq in 2004-06, the first time since World War II that its soldiers have entered a combat zone. The government also offers logistical assistance to U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan and has airlifted U.N. and coalition personnel and supplies into Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

The opposition said the guidelines passed Monday were flawed because they did not address the issue of minimum voter turnout in a national referendum.

“Japanese constitutionalism is now facing a serious threat, and the threat arises from Prime Minister Abe’s lack of understanding and lack of principles,” said Kiyoshige Maekawa, an opposition Democratic Party lawmaker.

It is unclear how much popular support Abe’s program has.

According to a poll released Monday, 62 percent of Japanese surveyed said they think the current interpretation of the constitution, barring Japan from coming to the defense of an ally which is under attack, should remain intact.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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