TOKYO: Japan took a historic step away from its post-war pacifism yesterday by ending a ban that has kept the military from fighting abroad since 1945, a victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe but a move that has riled China and worries many Japanese voters.
The change, the most dramatic shift in policy since Japan set up its post-war armed forces 60 years ago, will widen Japan’s military options by ending the ban on exercising “collective self-defence,” or aiding a friendly country under attack.
Abe’s cabinet adopted a resolution outlining the shift, which also relaxes limits on activities in UN-led peace-keeping operations and “grey zone” incidents short of full-scale war, Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters.
Long constrained by the post-war constitution, Japan’s armed forces will become more aligned with the militaries of other advanced nations , in terms of its options, but the government will be wary of putting boots on the ground in multilateral operations such as the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
Abe repeated that stance yesterday, while stressing Japan had to respond to an increasingly tough security environment.
“There is no change in the general principle that we cannot send troops overseas,” Abe told a televised news conference, flanked by a poster showing Japanese mothers and infants fleeing a theoretical combat zone on a US vessel under attack.
The new policy has angered an increasingly assertive China, whose ties with Japan have frayed due to a maritime row, mistrust and the legacy of Japan’s past military aggression.
“China opposes the Japanese fabricating the China threat to promote its domestic political agenda,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news conference in Beijing.
“We demand that Japan respect the reasonable security concerns of its Asian neighbours and prudently handle the relevant matter.”
South Korea, like Japan allied with the United States, but still aggrieved about Tokyo’s 20th century colonisation of the Korean peninsula, said it would not accept any change in policy affecting its security unless it gave its agreement.
Abe’s advisers have said Tokyo should take no action involving a friendly country without that country’s consent.
The shift, however, will be welcomed by Washington, which has long urged Tokyo to become a more equal alliance partner, and by Southeast Asia nations that also have rows with China Conservatives say the constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 has limited Japan’s ability to defend itself and that a changing regional power balance, including a rising China, means policies must be more flexible.
“Conservative governments have pushed the envelope hard and often to get the public to agree to a more elastic interpretation of article 9. Abe is taking a bigger leap and getting away with it, thanks to the Chinese,” said Columbia University political science professor Gerry Curtis.
Abe, who took office in 2012 promising to revive Japan’s economy and bolster its security posture, has pushed for the change - which revises a long-standing government interpretation of the charter - despite wariness among ordinary Japanese.
Some voters worry about entanglement in foreign wars and others are angry at what they see as a gutting of Article 9 by ignoring formal amendment procedures. The charter has never been revised since it was adopted after Japan’s 1945 defeat.
On Sunday, a man set himself on fire near a busy Tokyo intersection - a rare form of protest in Japan - after speaking out against Abe’s reinterpretation of Article 9.
While Abe spoke, thousands of protesters, including pensioners, housewives and employees just leaving work, gathered near the premier’s office carrying banners and shouting, “Don’t destroy Article 9,” “We’re against war” and “No more Abe.”
“After this bill is enacted, Japanese soldiers could be sent abroad to fight foreign wars - we don’t want that,” said Yoshiharu Uchinuma, 62, an artist and farmer, wearing a helmet saying “9 No War.” Reuters