After years of talking about it, Japan's governing party has moved ahead this month with plans to revise the country's constitution. The changes would expand the role of Japan's military - a significant break from its post-World War II pacifist era. And as Catherine Makino reports from Tokyo, that is giving rise to fear that Japan could return to its militarist past.

Since Japan's pacifist constitution was imposed by U.S. occupiers after the country's defeat in World War II, the Japanese have held Article Nine sacrosanct. In it, Japan forever renounced war and the threat of force as a means to settle international disputes. It limits Japan's military to a purely self-defensive role and bans any offensive capabilities. Article Nine was meant to show Japan was breaking with its imperialist era when it brutally invaded and conquered swaths of East Asia in the early 20th Century.

But a new generation of leaders, led by Shinzo Abe - the first prime minister born after the Second World War - backs sweeping reform of the constitution and specifically Article Nine.

Proponents of the changes, such as Osamu Nishi, professor of constitutional law at Komazawa University in Tokyo, say Japan needs to be able to project force commensurate with its economic power.
"Japan is not the same country as it was 60 years ago," he said.  "It has become a big country with a responsibility to keep world peace." 

Opponents of revision say it would bring a return to militarism and "a dark period of history." They argue that the pacifist clause has kept the country out of war and allowed Japan to prosper.

The Self-Defense Force has expanded over the years, and now has 240,000 members. Although Japanese soldiers have not been sent into combat, Tokyo dispatched about 600 non-combat soldiers to Iraq to work on reconstruction projects in southern Iraq since 2004. But the deployment was unpopular at home and the ground troops were withdrawn.

Nishi says such work does not mean Japan would be returning to militarism.

"Of course, in order not to return to militarism of the past, it is necessary for the civilian [sic] and government to control the military forces," Nishi says.

But behind the general talk of the need for Japan to play a larger role in the world is another argument: that Japan must compete more strongly with major neighboring powers such as China.

Law professor, Pema Gyalpo, of Toin University in Yokohama is a constitutional advisor to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He says a change in the military's role is necessary to meet any threat caused by China's growing military might.
"Because in recent years it has been very obvious that China is increasing their military budget by double digits, and this is very great concern for the Japanese," Gyalpo says. 

Gyalpo also believes that if Tokyo wants to become a global player and a member of the United Nations Security Council, it has to take a more active military role.

Such views may have the current government's backing, but proponents of change have a long wait ahead. The lower house of parliament passed a bill on April 13 setting out procedures for a national referendum on whether or not the constitution should be amended. The referendum could be held three years from now.

In the meantime, public support for constitutional change is declining. Surveys over the past 15 years by the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily newspaper, show that those favoring revision consistently outnumber those who oppose them. But the percentage of those in favor has dropped for three years in a row.

But some experts, such as Gyalpo, say while there is no pressing need to revise the constitution immediately, there is short-term political benefit for Mr. Abe to bring the issue to public debate.

"Well, when he became prime minister he said that one of his top priorities is to change the constitution and I think that's what he is trying to do," Gyalpo says. "Secondly, the opposition party is attacking him for the growing gap between the rich and poor, and also the pension issue for the citizens, elderly citizens, so that is why Abe is trying to focus the coming election in July on the constitution."

The constitution was drafted by the United States when it occupied Japan following Japan's defeat in World War Two. The document reduced the formerly supreme emperor to a symbolic figurehead and gave control of imperial palaces and assets to the Japanese parliament.

It established democracy in Japan, creating political parties and elections. Political power previously had been concentrated in the hands of a small group of government leaders who answered only to the emperor.

Freedom of speech, of religion, and human rights were also included in the 1947 constitution, as were "gender equality," the right to vote, and the right to own property.

But the more conservative elements in the LDP point out that the Americans imposed the constitution on Japan and that it therefore lacks true legitimacy in the eyes of many Japanese.

How far constitutional change should go remains a concern not just in Japan, but also across a region still wary of Japan's militaristic past.