Japan’s parliament approves security bills amid angry protests

Chaotic parliamentary vote could see troops fighting abroad for first time in 70 years

Japan's upper house panel approves contentious defence bills amid chaos. Video: Reuters


Japan has moved a step closer to allowing its troops to fight abroad for the first time in 70 years after a chaotic parliamentary vote on controversial security Bills.

Live television pictures showed politicians scuffling inside the Diet (parliament) before an upper house committee approved the Bills on Thursday.

Backed by Washington, prime minister Shinzo Abe wants Japan’s armed forces to take a more pro-active role, largely to deal with China’s growing military muscle in Asia.

But the ambition has proved divisive in a country that has stayed aloof from foreign conflicts since its devastating defeat in the second World War. Polls suggest most Japanese oppose Mr Abe on the issue.

Critics say the Bills will gut Japan’s pacifist constitution, which for decades has been interpreted as banning “collective defence,” or helping a friendly nation under attack.

Thousands of demonstrators, some holding signs dubbing Abe a “fascist” and calling the legislation “war Bills” have lined the streets outside the Diet for weeks, demanding they be scrapped.

“No matter what happens, we will keep fighting,” said Aki Okuda, one of the leaders of Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALD), which has led the protests.

Opposition politicians forced a 15-hour suspension of discussion on the Bills after blocking Mr Abe and others from entering the debate chamber. At one point on Thursday they jostled Yoshitada Konoike, the chairman of the security committee in an attempt to stop the vote, to no avail.

Thursday’s passage clears the way for a vote in the upper house, possibly on Friday. Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) dominates both houses of parliament with its coalition partner, the Komeito Party.

The legislation will expand the overseas’ role of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces. Mr Abe also wants to improve “interoperability” with American military forces to meet revised US-Japan defence guidelines.

Many fear, however, that the changes mean Japan risks becoming embroiled in American wars. Despite pressure from Washington, Japan did not send combat soldiers to Iraq or Kuwait and stayed out of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.

The prime minister has largely resisted specifying cases where the nation’s troops might be called into action and said collective defence would be invoked only when a close ally is attacked or there is a “threat to Japan’s existence”.

His supporters say the law will close the gap between perception and reality: Japan’s 1947 constitution, written during the US occupation of the country, permits no army, navy or air force, though it has had all three since the 1950s.

But the government has yet to convince others. Most scholars say the “re-interpretation” of the constitution is illegal. Protests have erupted across the country. Polls show support for the prime minister is falling the longer the security debate drags on.

The controversy has been fuelled by conflicting statements on the implications of the legislation. Defence minister Gen Nakatani sparked outrage last month when he appeared to say that Japanese troops might have to transport nuclear weapons as part of logistical support for US forces.

Mr Abe is reportedly keen to win a final vote on the Bills on Friday ahead of a five-day public holiday next week, which will likely see protests swelled by off-duty workers. Opposition politicians have pledged to block the upper house vote by any means, including a possible vote of no confidence in the prime minister.

The battle recalls the fierce dispute waged over Japan’s security treaty with America in 1960, which was pushed by his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, then prime minister. The treaty was eventually passed but mass protests forced Kishi to resign.