The Japanese government began a final push on Friday to enact contentious defence legislation that could let its troops fight overseas for the first time since World War Two, despite public protests and delaying tactics by the opposition.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says the policy shift, which would mark the biggest change in defence policy since the creation of Japan’s post-war military in 1954, is vital to meet new challenges such as from a rising China.
But the bills have sparked massive protests from ordinary citizens and others who say they violate the pacifist constitution and could ensnare Japan in US-led conflicts after 70 years of post-war peace. Abe’s ratings have also taken a hit.
Japan’s ally the United States has welcomed the shift but China, where bitter memories of Japan’s wartime aggression run deep, has repeatedly expressed concern about the legislation.
“Recently we have noticed that voices in Japan opposing the bill have become louder by the day,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters on Friday.
“We demand that Japan earnestly listen to these just voices domestically and internationally, learn the lessons of history, uphold the path of peaceful development, speak and act cautiously in security and military matters and take actual steps to maintain regional peace and stability.”
Parliament’s session runs until Sept. 27, but ruling party lawmakers are keen to have the upper house approve the bills – the last step to enactment – before a five-day holiday starts on Saturday, when big street demonstrations could erupt.
Abe’s ruling bloc has an upper house majority, but major opposition parties submitted censure motions in the chamber and a no confidence motion in the lower house to block a vote.
One opposition member tried to delay the vote on a censure motion against Abe by resorting to the “Ox Walk”, or advancing at an excruciatingly slow pace to the ballot box, but was ordered by the chamber’s president to speed up. He then took out prayer beads and mimicked a funeral rite to symbolise what he has called the “death” of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party.
The motion, as expected, was defeated.
The bills, which include legal revisions to drop a long-standing ban on collective self-defence, or defending a friendly country under attack, were approved on Thursday by an upper house panel in a chaotic, raucous session.
Thousands of demonstrators have rallied near parliament every day this week, chanting “Scrap the war bills” and “Abe resign”, and gathered again on Friday.
The protests, while peaceful, have called to mind those that forced Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, to resign 55 years ago after pushing a US-Japan security treaty through parliament.
Besides ending the ban on collective self-defence in cases where Japan faces a “threat to its survival”, the measures expand the scope for logistics support for the militaries of the United States and others, and for participation in peacekeeping.
The revisions will still leave Japan’s military constrained in overseas operations by legal limits and a deeply rooted public anti-war mindset.
Critics, however, say the changes make a mockery of the pacifist constitution and deplore what they see as Abe’s authoritarian mode of pushing for enactment of the bills.
“The content, process and doctrine of the security bills … risk reversing the path we have walked for the past 70 years as a country of peace and democracy,” Yukio Edano, the second-most senior leader of the opposition Democratic Party, told parliament’s lower house.