Abe's legal aide on defense reform steps down due to ill health

The government said Friday a senior legal aide to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has resigned due to ill health and that it has picked a successor who backs his predecessor's position on reinterpreting Japan's pacifist Constitution to expand its defense roles in the world.

Ichiro Komatsu, 63, who headed the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, offered to step down when he met with Abe on Thursday. The former diplomat was diagnosed with an abdominal tumor in late January and then hospitalized for a month.

Komatsu's deputy, Yusuke Yokobatake, 62, took over, effective Friday.

"My position is not based on the premise that it is impossible" for the government to change its interpretation of the Constitution to enable the country to exercise the right to collective self-defense, Yokobatake told reporters, referring to a key element of the defense policy reform that Abe has been pursuing.

"I will thoroughly study the issue without delay," the former prosecutor added.

Komatsu told Abe on Thursday night that he wants to "concentrate on treatment" for cancer, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

On Thursday, Abe received a proposal by a panel of experts that urged the government to lift Japan's self-imposed ban on engaging in collective self-defense and use the right to come to the defense of an ally in a limited manner.

The current official position is that Japan has the right to collective self-defense under international law but cannot exercise it due to the limits imposed by Article 9 of the Constitution that bans the use of force to settle international disputes.

Lifting the ban means Japan could exercise the right to defend an ally, such as the United States, under armed attack even if Japan itself were not subject to the attack.

Abe said the government will study the proposal further while asking the ruling parties to discuss the matter.

The legislation bureau is responsible for examining legislation, offering legal advice to Cabinet members and researching laws and their implementations.

Abe picked Komatsu as its director general in August. Before the appointment, he served as Japan's ambassador to France and had no previous experience at the bureau.

Komatsu, widely known as an advocate of reinterpreting the war-renouncing supreme law, became the first Foreign Ministry official to take up the post. Abe's decision largely reflected his desire to have a legal advisor who agrees to his position.

Yokobatake has experience at the bureau's division charged with constitutional interpretation. He acted for Komatsu when he was hospitalized earlier this year.

Speaking before parliament in February, Yokobatake said the government is generally allowed to reinterpret the Constitution, and that it can change the interpretation to lift the ban on exercising the right to collective defense.

The government decided in March to postpone Yokobatake's retirement from the bureau for a year.

Abe has concluded it will be difficult for Komatsu to join what are likely to be intense Diet deliberations on the issue of collective self-defense, the top government spokesman told a press conference Friday. Komatsu became a Cabinet advisor the same day.