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TOKYO (Reuters) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party wants to revise Japan's constitution by late 2018 to remove constraints on his defense strategy, a key party lawmaker said, an ambitious target since the charter has not been changed since Americans drafted it after World War Two.
Abe has already stretched the post-war pacifist constitution with a dramatic shift in security policy that ends a ban on Japan's military fighting overseas.
That shift, outlined in a cabinet resolution last July and to be enacted in the coming months, will be reflected in new U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines to be unveiled in New York on Monday during Abe's visit to the United States.
"The cabinet resolution and legislation being crafted now have gone right up to the limits of what is possible under the constitution as it is now," said Hajime Funada, head of a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) panel on constitutional revision.
"If we want to have more flexibility, it is necessary to revise Article 9," he told Reuters in a recent interview.
The constitution's war-renouncing Article 9, if read literally, bans the maintenance of armed forces. Successive governments have interpreted it to allow a military for "self-defense".
Conservative Japanese also want to rewrite the U.S-drafted constitution as a matter of national pride.
A revision would be seen as a huge symbolic victory for the LDP, which has ruled for most of the past six decades but not been able to change a word of the charter.
Funada said the next three years were a window of opportunity to do the revision, since no lower house election need be held until late 2018 and Abe would likely win another three-year term as LDP leader in a September party poll.
"During that period if possible, we want to revise the constitution including Article 9," he said.
A proposed change by the LDP would make clear Japan has the right to maintain a military and deploy it at home and abroad.
That would give a clear constitutional basis for Abe's bolder policies without time-consuming legal gymnastics on the interpretation of the current charter.
Critics, though, say revision would boost the risk of Japan becoming involved in military conflict.
With a majority of Japanese voters still opposed to altering Article 9, the LDP will first eye changes to less contentious aspects, Funada said. That could help convince the public that revising the charter is not taboo.
A revision needs approval of two-thirds of each house of parliament and a majority of voters in a public referendum.
Abe's ruling bloc has a two-thirds majority in the lower house but will have trouble duplicating that in the upper chamber in a 2016 election, so revisions need support from the opposition.
One option is to tackle minor clauses such as a ban on using public funds for private schools, already broken in practice.
Another is to adopt a new clause giving the government more powers in a national emergency, although opposition parties are wary of curtailing individual rights.
"If the first stage goes well ... the next issue would be Article 9," he said. "But we must be very cautious ... If we cannot get a majority in a public referendum, it would give the impression that revising Article 9 is impossible."
Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Rachel Armstrong