By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - Is Japan's constitution a symbol of peace and respect for universal values or a reminder of humiliating defeat?
As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rushes to push through unpopular legislation allowing broader use of Japan's military, the heated security debate masks a deeper divide over the pacifist charter, drafted by U.S. Occupation officials after Japan's World War Two defeat.
Admirers view the constitution as the source of Japan's peace, prosperity and democracy.
Many of Abe's conservative backers, who have long wanted to rewrite the constitution but lacked the political means, view it as a shoddy document written, in the words of one commentary, "with malice and vengeance" to keep Japan forever subdued.
"If we keep the constitution GHQ (U.S. Occupation headquarters) gave to a defeated Japan, Japan will always remain a defeated country," says a great-grandfather in a cartoon published recently by Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to explain why the charter should be revised.
That view is fanning suspicion among Abe's critics that the proposed legislation to ease limits on the military is a step toward gutting not only the charter's pacifist Article 9, but basic principles such as respect for human rights.
"I think he hates the concept of modern constitutionalism, the concept that the powers of the government should be restricted by the constitution," Yasuo Hasebe, a constitutional scholar at Waseda University, told Reuters.
Drafted by U.S. officials during a frantic week in February 1946 and based on principles set out by General Douglas MacArthur, supreme allied commander in Japan, the constitution renounced the right to wage war or maintain armed forces and enshrined democracy and human rights.
It has been stretched to allow Japan a military equal to Britain's but still constrained compared with other countries' armed forces.
Invited to speak to a parliamentary panel by the LDP, the soft-spoken Hasebe set off a firestorm when he said last month legislation to let Japan exercise the right of collective self-defense, or fighting to defend a friendly country under attack, was unconstitutional.
Despite the furor, the ruling bloc may push bills allowing a greater role for the military through the lower house as early as this week to ensure passage before parliament adjourns on Sept. 27. That could erode Abe's already slipping ratings.
Abe has made clear he wants to revise the constitution, but formal amendment requires approval by two-thirds of both houses of parliament and a majority in a referendum, conditions that have never been met.
Instead, his cabinet - arguing new security threats such as a rising China make change vital - has adopted a resolution reinterpreting the constitution to allow for collective self-defense.
"This is a constitution that was imposed on us and should be re-written completely," Nihon University professor Akira Momichi, one of a handful of scholars who back Abe's reinterpretation, told a news conference.
"But the process of amendment is a very difficult hurdle, so we have to do the best with what we have."
Surveys show most constitutional scholars, lawyers and jurists disagree.
"Because they can't revise the constitution, they are trying to ignore it," Keio University professor emeritus Setsu Kobayashi told Reuters.
Concern about changes has sparked demonstrations and grassroots activism.
"This is not just a matter of Article 9," lawyer Keiko Ota recently told a small gathering at a Tokyo cafe.
"The question is whether or not we want to stop being a country ruled by law," said Ota, who has held about 100 "Constitution Cafes" since Abe took office in 2012.
Defenders argue that though drafted by occupiers, the constitution has been largely embraced by Japanese citizens.
Advocates of revision say there is no time to lose.
"We need, under the Abe administration, to do whatever it takes to protect Japan," commentator Yoshiko Sakurai, an Abe ally, said at a May 3 event to mark the anniversary of the constitution taking effect. "It is high time to rewrite the constitution."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)