TOKYO: Japan’s parliament passed contentious security bills into law early Saturday, in a move that could see Japanese troops fight abroad for the first time in 70 years.
Lawmakers approved the bills to ease restrictions on the country’s tightly controlled military, while outside thousands rallied in a last-ditch show of opposition to laws they fear could fundamentally reshape the proudly pacifist nation.
The changes, which would allow Japanese troops to fight in defence of allies, have drawn tens of thousands of people from across society onto the streets in almost daily protests, in a show of public anger rarely seen on such a scale.
Outside parliament protesters, estimated at over 10,000, raised their voices louder as news of the decision spread through the crowd, chanting: “Protect the constitution.” One sign read: “Spread peace not war.”
“I’m ready to stay here all night. The government cannot ignore such a demonstration,” said 60-year-old farmer Yukiko Ogawa.
“It is vital that we make our opinion known, that we are here.”
Seiji Kawabe, 49, vowed the movement would live on, adding: “We have enough natural disasters, typhoons, earthquakes… we don’t need any man-made disasters.”
Organisers said more than 40,000 had gathered for Friday night’s rally, while police estimated the size of the crowd at some 11,000.
Nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says the changes were a normalisation of Japan’s military policy, which has been restricted to self-defence and aid missions by a pacifist constitution imposed by the US after World War II.
He and his backers say the laws are necessary because of threats from an increasingly belligerent China and unstable North Korea.
Opponents argue they go against both the constitution and the national psyche, and could see Japan dragged into far-flung American wars.
Speaking after the vote, Abe said the changes were “necessary in order to protect people’s lives and peaceful way of life”.
“This is designed to prevent wars,” he told journalists.
‘We do not forgive’
The decision came after days of emotional debate and delaying tactics by the opposition, which in Thursday erupted into scuffles as politicians physically tried to block a committee approving the bills.
President of the upper house Masaaki Yamazaki said the bills passed with 148 lawmakers voting in favour, compared to 90 against.
However, the changes will not see Japanese troops dispatched to warzones any time soon and the laws will now face a ruling by the supreme court that could potentially see them overturned.
Unable to muster support to amend clauses enshrining pacifism, Abe opted instead to re-interpret the document for the purpose of his bills, ignoring warnings from scholars and lawyers that they are unconstitutional.
He has faced fierce criticism for both the laws themselves and the way he has driven them through in the face of public opposition.
There are growing signs this is taking a political toll — opinion polls show the vast majority of Japanese are against the changes, and Abe’s once sky-high approval rating is dropping.
In protests outside parliament earlier in the day, Yoko Fujiwara stood among the crowds with her six-year-old daughter, who carried a hand-written sign saying: “We do not forgive. Children are angry, too.”
“I came to the protest together with my daughter to show what real democracy is like,” said the 40-year-old graduate law student.
Opponents of the laws, including a Nobel-Prize winner, popular musicians and other prominent figures, say the changes could fundamentally alter Japan.
Washington has backed the changes, but regional rivals China and South Korea have expressed concern at any expansion of Japanese military scope.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Friday called on Japan to “listen carefully to voices inside and outside the country calling for justice” and called on lawmakers to “take real actions to protect regional peace and stability”.