Japan’s coalition government has approved a controversial reinterpretation of the nation’s pacifist constitution that will let its troops fight overseas for the first time since World War II.
The decision means Japan will be able to engage in collective self-defence and come to the aid of a military ally under attack – principally the United States.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says the new strategy, which many are calling the biggest change to Japan’s defence posture in nearly 70 years, is needed to deal with growing threats in the Asia-Pacific region.
“The global situation surrounding Japan is becoming ever more difficult,” Mr. Abe said in a televised press conference last night.
“Being fully prepared is effective in discouraging any attempt to wage a war on Japan. The cabinet decision today will further lessen the chance of Japan being engaged in war. That is my conviction.”
The move is backed by the United States, Japan’s main military ally, but it has been bitterly divisive in a country where pacifism is deeply embedded. Polls show that most Japanese oppose the reinterpretation.
Thousands of demonstrators have stood outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo since Monday, chanting anti-war slogans. On Sunday, a man set himself alight outside Tokyo’s busiest train station in apparent protest.
The Cabinet decision has also angered China. A stinging editorial in the Xinhua English website said Mr. Abe is “leading his country down a dangerous path” by “gutting the constitution.”
“No matter how Abe glosses over it, he is dallying with the specter of war through a cheap scam but at the dear cost of the souls not only of his own but also of the entire Japanese nation,” the editorial said.
Mr. Abe spent months negotiating the change with his government’s coalition partner, the Buddhist-backed New Komeito, which pledged to protect the constitution.
The reinterpretation is a compromise between the pacifism of New Komeito and the more hawkish line taken by Mr Abe’s Liberal Democrats (LDP).
A draft cabinet resolution says Japan will be able to come to the aid of an ally in limited circumstances, such as if an attack poses “an imminent threat to Japan’s survival” or the lives and rights of its people.
It says the right to “minimum force” will be exercised if other means to eliminate that threat have failed. Mr. Abe says such rights are needed to allow Japan to become a “proactive” contributor to world peace.
Months of cabinet discussions have revealed deep divisions on the scope of interpretation for military actions allowed under the law, however, with the LDP pushing for broader powers.
Mr. Abe wants Japan to join minesweeping operations through sea lanes the Middle East, through which most of the oil destined for Japan passes, but New Komeito argued that clearing mines during war went far beyond self-defence.
Critics say the new guidelines have been left deliberately vague to allow the government more room to decide military engagements.
“They’re only the opening step in future plans to send Japanese soldiers abroad,” said Hiroyuki Konishi, an opposition lawmaker who fought the changes.
The constitution was written in 1946 during the American occupation of Japan. Mr. Abe is part of a conservative contingent that has long demanded it be scrapped or rewritten.
Protesters outside the Prime Minister’s Office last night held banners saying: “Protect the Constitution" and “My children won’t fight in war.”
“Abe is ignoring public opinion and our constitution because he wants a bigger military,” said Yumiko Fujiwara. “I can’t forgive him.”