Japan's Cabinet has agreed on a proposal to end a ban on its military fighting abroad, a major shift away from the country's postwar pacifism and a move that is riling China.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera confirmed the proposed change on Tuesday, in what is seen as a political victory for conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The change would significantly widen Japan's military options by ending the ban on exercising "collective self-defense," or aiding a friendly country under attack.
It would also relax limits on activities in U.N.-led peacekeeping operations and gray-zone incidents short of full-scale war.
The proposal changes not the wording of Japan’s postwar, U.S.-drafted charter but how those words are interpreted.
Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which has not been revised since it was adopted after Japan's 1945 defeat, allows only for a self-defense force.
In Tokyo on Tuesday, people gathered in front of Abe's official residence to protest the plan to expand its military's role abroad.
Hundreds of protesters, including pensioners and labor union members, marched carrying banners and shouting, "Don't destroy Article 9" and "We're against war."
"I'm against the right of collective self defense, but more important, 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 reinterpretation of Article 9. Public opinion is divided on the proposed rule, and leading newspapers like the Asahi Shimbun have voiced opposition.
Both houses of the national legislature must still approve the change, but partners in the ruling coalition have signaled their support.
Long constrained by its U.S.-imposed pacifist postwar constitution, Japan's armed forces would gain a range of military options under the move, although the government would likely remain wary of putting boots on the ground in multilateral operations.
Abe has pushed for the change since taking office 18 months ago, despite reluctance among many Japanese voters worried about entanglement in foreign wars and angered by what some see as a gutting of Article 9 by ignoring formal amendment procedures.
The proposed change has alarmed neighboring China whose ties with Japan have frayed because of a maritime row in the East China Sea, historic mistrust and the legacy of Japan's military aggression.
Al Jazeera and wire services