Japan’s Cabinet is set to endorse a set of defense bills allowing the country’s military to go beyond its self-defense stance and play a greater role internationally, a plan that has split public opinion.
Hundreds of citizens rallied outside Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s office Thursday, calling the bills “war legislation” that turn Japan toward militarism. They say the move would tarnish nearly 70 years of efforts by Japan to regain international trust and identity as a pacifist nation.
After its defeat in World War II, Japan renounced war under the U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution that bans the use of force as a means of settling international disputes.
Abe and his government say that leaves Japan vulnerable amid increasingly assertive China’s presence in the region, adding Japan should be better prepared to defend itself while doing more to help out in international peacekeeping efforts.
The government says the bills, which would remove geographic restrictions on where the military can operate and allow it to do more, are needed to change domestic law in line with Japan’s national security policy under Abe. Supporters call it a proactive peace contribution and a way for Japan to be a normal country.
Media polls show public opinion over the bills and the new defense policy are divided. According to a telephone survey conducted by Japan’s NHK public television, responses were split, with slightly more opposition than support.
“I was born right after the war, but during this time Japan was able to gain prosperity and trust from the world because of our peace constitution, because that gained trust from the world community, and we all worked so hard to get here, with the peace constitution as our pride,” said Taeko Otaki, a 68-year-old homemaker at the rally.
The bills would allow Japan to defend its allies for the first time since World War II, based on an interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution that Abe’s Cabinet adopted last year. Opponents say the change of interpretation without following the formal process of changing the Constitution was undermining democracy and constitutionalism.
Koichi Nakano, an international politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, says the changes are problematic because they would allow the prime minister and a handful of leaders to make crucial decisions, such a troop dispatch overseas, without due process.
“I think it is possible that Japanese diplomatic power may be enhanced by this but also there are people who are worried that Japan’s peace brand, the image of Japan as a pacifist country, is going to be damaged,” he said.