TOKYO - Nationalist prime minister Shinzo Abe is expected Thursday to set out his case for beefing up pacifist Japan's rules of engagement, in a controversial move he hopes will allow its armed forces to enter battle in defence of allies.
Citing the rise of an increasingly assertive China, Abe will argue that Japan needs to cast off strictures that have prevented the so-called Self Defence Forces from firing a shot in combat since 1945.
"National security means ensuring our country's safety, no matter what, and unyieldingly pursuing the protection of people's lives, freedom, happiness and peace," Abe said Thursday as he received an expert report on his options.
The prime minister has long nurtured a desire to see more flexibility in Japan's pacifist constitution, which was imposed by the occupying United States in the aftermath of Tokyo's World War II defeat.
Article 9 of the document - which has reportedly been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize - says Japan forever renounces the use of force as a means of settling international disputes.
For decades, governments have held that this means Japan's military may only open fire if fired upon, even if that entails leaving US counterparts in danger on the same battlefield.
Unable to change the constitution because of deep domestic resistance, Abe has argued for the next-best thing: a reinterpretation of the laws to permit "collective defence".
A panel of constitutional experts convened by the prime minister has come up with a series of proposals on the legal framework for military action, which Abe is expected to use to bolster his case.
The move is controversial and risks forcing a split with his ruling party's coalition partner, New Komeito, secular Buddhists without whom Abe does not have an outright majority in the upper house of parliament.
"It will be the first reinterpretation of the constitution by a politician in Japan," said Tomoaki Iwai, professor of Japanese politics at Nippon University in Tokyo.
"It's going to be a turning point in the country's politics," Iwai said.
"It will take time to persuade Komeito, but I think the cabinet will endorse the reinterpretation by the end of this year for sure."
Memories of an imperialist past
Voters are lukewarm on the idea; a poll of more than 2,000 adults nationwide showed 63 per cent oppose the concept of collective defence, the Asahi Shimbun reported last month.
That was up from 56 per cent last year and more than double the 29 per cent who support the idea, the poll showed.
A citizens' group, named "Women who won't have sex with war-loving men," has launched what it says is a full-scale sex strike to punish any man who supports the move.
Abe's drive to strengthen the military triggers intense emotions in China and on the Korean peninsula, where memories linger of Tokyo's brutal expansionism last century.
Beijing has sought to paint the prime minister as an atavistic militarist, bent on resurrecting the warmongering of imperialist Japan.
However, his position is welcomed in Washington, where there have long been calls for Japan to pull its own weight in a very one-sided security alliance.
US President Barack Obama welcomed the move when he held a summit with Abe in Tokyo last month.
Unease in Japan about China's increasing assertiveness, and specifically its strident claims to disputed islands in the East China Sea, has helped bolster Abe's push to enhance the role of the military.