TOKYO – Japan's parliament is moving to approve to legislation that would loosen post-World War II constraints placed on its military, an issue that has sparked sizeable protests and debate about whether the nation should shift away from its pacifist ways to face growing security challenges.
A look at what's at stake:
HOW WOULD THE LEGISLATION CHANGE JAPAN'S MILITARY?
Japan's post-World War II pacifist constitution restricts the military to defending itself and the country. It's even called the Self-Defense Forces.
The change that has gotten the most attention allows the military to also defend allies under a concept known as collective self-defense, which previous governments have considered unconstitutional.
For example, Japan would be able to intercept a missile flying over Japan that is headed for U.S. territory. Currently it can shoot down a missile only when it is fired at Japan. Or, if an American warship comes under attack, Japanese forces could go to its defense.
Farther afield, Japan would be able to carry out minesweeping in Middle East waters.
All these activities could only be carried out under certain conditions. For example, a situation must be deemed an "imminent critical threat" to Japan. An interruption of oil shipments could be such a threat to resource-poor Japan, justifying minesweeping in the Middle East.
The opposition says the conditions are overly vague, giving future governments too much leeway to interpret them as they see fit.
The legislation would also allow Japan to do more in U.N. peacekeeping missions, including logistical support for other militaries and protection for civilian workers. Previously, Japan has restricted its role to noncombat activities such as building infrastructure and policing.
WHAT'S DRIVING THIS CHANGE?
Backers of the legislation argue that Japan's backyard has become a more dangerous place, citing North Korean missile tests and Chinese challenges to Japanese sovereignty over remote islands.
They say a more active military is needed to help preserve Japan's peace and prosperity by deterring China and North Korea. A major goal of the legislation is to allow the military to work more closely with its main ally, the United States, strengthening their joint capabilities.
More generally, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and others in his Liberal Democratic Party have long chaffed at the constitutional restrictions and believed that Japan should have a stronger military.
The U.S. government has welcomed the changes as it seeks closer cooperation with not only Japan but also Australia, the Philippines and others in the region to counter Chinese challenges to U.S. influence in the Pacific.
Japan has largely depended on the U.S. for protection since World War II, allowing American troops to be stationed on Japanese soil in return. The U.S. remains treaty-bound to defend Japan, but there is also nascent concern that a budget-constrained United States may not be able to or have the political will to do so in the future.
WHY ARE THE CHANGES SO CONTROVERSIAL?
Moves to expand the military's role are almost always contentious in Japan. There was stiff public and parliamentary opposition when Japan first joined U.N. peacekeeping operations in 1992, and when it sent troops to Iraq in 2004 for construction projects.
Many Japanese are wary of any change to the country's pacifist stance, which has brought seven decades of peace and relative prosperity. They worry that deepening U.S.-Japan security ties will make Japan a more likely target of anti-U.S. extremists, and increase the risk of becoming embroiled in a U.S.-led conflict. Some students worry the legislation could lead to a military draft as Japan's population shrinks and ages.
The public recognizes the threats, but remains uncomfortable at best with the changes. Those opposed outnumber supporters by a wide margin in media polls, and rallies against the bills and Prime Minister Abe himself have swelled into the tens of thousands in recent months, unusually large for Japan.