Inciting public protests and a walkout by opposition lawmakers, Japan's lower house of parliament passed a set of controversial security bills on Thursday, paving the way for the country's military to potentially fight abroad for the first time since World War II.
The move offered further evidence of the pacifist nation's march toward militarism, with one protester telling NBC News: "This is going to make it easier to go to war. It's wrong." According to news outlets, hundreds of protesters stood outside the parliament building on Thursday, chanting anti-war slogans during the debate and vote. Some held banners that read: "No to war legislation!"
"By upholding our constitution, I think we've earned the respect and trust from the world… and its something that has been carefully protected for 70 years. If Japan becomes another regular nation which goes to war like the United States, Japan will lose its singular brand."
—Norikazu Hamada, protester
According to Irish Times reporter David McNeill in Tokyo, most members of Japan's opposition parties walked out of the chamber in protest before the vote on Thursday afternoon. Some shouted "shame" and held signs calling the bills "unforgivable."
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose ruling coalition put forth the bills, wants Japan's armed forces to join in military activities abroad and defend allies under attack—principally the United States—a policy Abe has dubbed "proactive pacifism."
The New York Times reports that "Abe has presented the package as an unavoidable response to new threats facing Japan, in particular the growing military power of China. He seized on the murder of two Japanese hostages by the Islamic State militant group in January as an example of why Japan needs to loosen restrictions on its military, suggesting that the military might have rescued them had it been free to act."
But legal scholars counter that Japan's constitution explicitly disavows war. Article 9 of the nation's constitution, which came into effect on May 3, 1947, states: "Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes."
Opposition lawmaker Yukihisa Fujita told CNN this week that the change will "damage the way Japanese people and country is viewed. It will damage the view of Japanese as a diplomatic nation."
And according to the Associated Press, polls show about 80 percent of Japanese oppose the bills and the majority believe the legislation is unconstitutional. Sheila Smith, writing at the Council on Foreign Relations' Asia Unbound blog, states that "[c]itizen activism against the prime minister’s policies is spreading, and on the streets and in town halls across Japan, there is a push to build a coalition of opposition to Abe’s effort at defense policy reform."
Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partners hold a two-thirds majority, which is needed to approve bills, in the lower house. The upper house, where the LDP and partners also hold a majority, now has 60 days to rule on the bills. Even if it rejects them, the bills would be sent back to the more powerful lower house, which can then pass them into law.
According to the Japan Times:
One of the two security bills will establish a new permanent law to allow the [Self-Defense Forces, or SDF] to provide logistic support for a foreign military engaging in U.N.-backed operations, while the second will amend 10 security-related laws and remove various restrictions on the SDF's operations.
The latter bill would allow Japan to use the right of collective self-defense as defined under the United Nations charter, or the right to use force to aid an ally under attack even if Japan itself is not.
Japan marks 70 years since the end of the second World War next month.
"By upholding our constitution, I think we've earned the respect and trust from the world… and its something that has been carefully protected for 70 years," said 34-year-old protester Norikazu Hamada on Thursday. "If Japan becomes another regular nation which goes to war like the United States, Japan will lose its singular brand."
Unsurprisingly, the United States has supported Abe's push. "We certainly welcome, as we've said before, Japan's ongoing efforts to strengthen the alliance and to play a more active role in regional and international security activities," U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby reportedly said Wednesday.
Late last week, Reuters reported that Japan is interested in joining a 12-nation NATO missile building consortium that would give Tokyo its first taste of a multinational defense project. The news outlet wrote: "Two Japanese sources familiar with the initiative said discussions in Tokyo were at an early stage, although joining the consortium would dovetail with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's more muscular security agenda, which included the lifting last year of a decades-old ban on arms exports."