TOKYO The Japanese government took a historic step Friday toward revising the country's pacifist constitution, winning parliament's endorsement of procedures for a national referendum necessary to make changes to its postwar charter.
But the referendum bill had to be rammed through the lower house of parliament against bitter resistance by opposition parties. The clash signaled that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe still faces a tough fight to win approval for the actual constitutional amendments.
Changing the United States-imposed constitution requires approval by two-thirds of the lawmakers in both houses of parliament, a threshold that will force the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to win opposition support for any changes.
The referendum bill now goes to the upper house, where the government's majority is expected to make it law by June.
Rewriting the constitution is a central goal of Abe's government, which wants to shuck off what it sees as a foreign constitution that imposed non-Japanese values on a defeated country. In particular, it wants to change Article 9, the pacifist clause that renounces Japan's right to wage war or use force to settle disputes. The main parties agree that restrictions in Article 9 should be loosened, but differ over the conditions under which the use of force should be allowed.
Critics say the referendum bill has exposed illiberal tendencies in the Abe government. The law would ban public servants and teachers from participating in campaigns on either side of the referendum question.
Opponents say those restrictions run counter to the constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and academic freedom.
"Conservative politicians hate the teachers union and the public servants union because they are supporters of the current constitution," said Sayo Saruta, with the Japan Bar Assn. "They are obviously trying to intimidate them."
Polls show that the public is ambivalent about amending the constitution. But Abe plans to make the issue a central part of his campaign in key elections for upper house seats this summer.
The referendum bill is part of a package of changes Abe has pushed through parliament in recent months that reflect his nationalist spirit.