TOKYO - Japan's cabinet was poised on Tuesday to end a ban that has kept the military from fighting abroad since World War Two, a major shift away from post-war pacifism and a victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but a move that will rile China.
The move, seen by some as the biggest shift in defence policy since Japan set up its post-war armed forces exactly 60 years ago, would end a ban on exercising "collective self-defence" or aiding a friendly country under attack.
It would also relax limits on activities in UN-led peace-keeping operations and "grey zone" incidents that fall short of full-scale war, according to a draft cabinet resolution.
Long constrained by the pacifist post-war constitution, Japan's armed forces will gain an expanded range of military options, although the government would likely remain wary of putting boots on the ground in multilateral operations such as the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
Abe has pushed for the change since taking office 18 months ago despite wariness among many Japanese voters worried about entanglement in foreign wars and angry at what some see as a gutting of the constitution's war-renouncing Article 9 by ignoring formal amendment procedures. The charter has never been revised since it was adopted after Japan's 1945 defeat.
Hundreds of protesters, including pensioners and labour union members, marched near the premier's office on Tuesday carrying banners and shouting, "Don't destroy Article 9" and"We're against war". "I'm against the right of collective-self defence, but more importantly, I'm against the way Abe is pushing this change through," said 21-year-old university student Misa Machimura.
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 re-interpretation of Article 9.