TOKYO — Japan's Cabinet endorsed a set of defense bills Thursday that would allow the country's military to operate under a broader definition of self-defense and play a greater role internationally, a plan that has split public opinion.
Hundreds of people rallied outside Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's office calling the bills "war legislation" that turn Japan toward militarism. They say the move would tarnish nearly 70 years of efforts by Japan to regain international trust and identity as a pacifist nation.
Abe, in a bid to win public understanding, said in a nationally televised news conference that Japan's military needs to be able to do more to protect the country and contribute to international peacekeeping.
"We cannot look away from this severe situation," he said. "Right now, we don't have the (legal) instruments necessary to eliminate the danger even when our lives are in clear danger."
The bills, whose titles include phrases such as "peace and security" and "international peace support," will be taken up by parliament next.
After its defeat in World War II, Japan renounced war under the U.S.-drafted constitution that essentially limits the use of force to self-defense.
Abe and his government say that a strict interpretation of that limit leaves Japan vulnerable as China asserts itself in the region and North Korea pursues missile and nuclear ambitions.
The bills would remove geographic restrictions on where the military can operate. Another change would allow Japan to defend its allies, not just itself. The government says they are needed to bring domestic law in line with Abe's national security policy.
The legislation would also enhance the U.S.-Japan security alliance, but Abe denied opponents' fears that it would increase the chance of Japan being drawn into a U.S.-led war. Instead, the legislation would "increase deterrence and further eliminate chances of Japan coming under attack," Abe said.
Critics say what constitutes the right to use "collective self-defense" or when troops could be sent on a peace mission overseas is too vague.
China raised concerns, citing Japan's wartime history.
"We hope Japan makes actual efforts in absorbing historical lessons, adhering to peaceful development, and making positive and constructive contributions to a peaceful and stable development in a region shared by all the Asian countries," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
Media polls show public opinion divided.
"I was born right after the war, but during this time Japan was able to gain prosperity and trust from the world because of our peace constitution," said Taeko Otaki, a 68-year-old homemaker at the rally outside Abe's office.
Koichi Nakano, an international politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, says the changes are problematic because they would allow the prime minister and a handful of leaders to make crucial decisions, such as dispatching troops overseas, without due process.
"I think it is possible that Japanese diplomatic power may be enhanced by this but also there are people who are worried that Japan's peace brand, the image of Japan as a pacifist country, is going to be damaged," he said.
Associated Press writer Emily Wang in Tokyo contributed to this report.