Japan pushing on with military reform despite fiery suicide bid

Police officers and fire-fighters investigate the site where a man set himself on fire at a pedestrian walkway near Shinjuku station in Tokyo, in this photo taken by Kyodo on June 29, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS / KYODO
Police officers and fire-fighters investigate the site where a man set himself on fire at a pedestrian walkway near Shinjuku station in Tokyo, in this photo taken by Kyodo on June 29, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS / KYODO

TOKYO (AFP) - Japan's government will press ahead with divisive plans to loosen restrictions on its military, a top government spokesman said on Monday, despite widespread public anger that erupted into a fiery suicide bid by a middle-aged protestor.

Hundreds of people in the busy Tokyo district of Shinjuku watched on Sunday afternoon as a man in a suit set himself ablaze on top of a footbridge, after making a speech opposing moves to let Japan's well-equipped military fight on behalf of allies.

The dramatic conflagration - a highly unusual act in Japan - was widely discussed on social media in both English and Japanese, with numerous videos and photographs posted by onlookers. Many Internet users made the connection between the self-immolation and a groundswell of opposition to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's push to relax constitutional rules preventing Japan's armed forces from going into battle.

However, the issue received scant coverage in the mainstream media, with none of the national newspapers using a picture in their short reports. National broadcaster NHK, whose chairman caused outrage earlier this year by suggesting that the state-funded body should not contradict the prime minister, did not cover the self-immolation on the day. At least two private broadcasters did, using footage that had been posted on YouTube.

The government's chief spokesman Yoshihide Suga on Monday refused to comment on the suicide attempt, which he said was a police matter, but confirmed that the cabinet would push ahead on Tuesday with plans to change the interpretation of part of the pacifist constitution.

Under the current reading, Japan's large and well-trained military is barred from taking any action, except in very-narrowly defined circumstances in which the country is under attack.

"We are in the final stage of the coordination between the ruling parties," Mr Suga told reporters. "Once the consensus is made between the ruling parties, we will have it approved by the cabinet tomorrow."

Protest suicides

The plans by the conservative premier to increase his country's military options are supported by the United States, Tokyo's chief ally, but are highly controversial at home, where voters are deeply wedded to the pacifism Japan adopted after World War II.

The latest polls show at least half of respondents are against a more aggressive military stance. The liberal daily Mainichi said at the weekend that 58 per cent of voters are opposed, while 80 per cent feel the government has more explaining to do. In its poll published on Monday, the Nikkei business daily said 50 per cent of respondents are against the change.

But Mr Suga defended the plan, saying: "The government should protect people's lives and property as well as the country's safety...and if there is a defect in the current legal framework, we will address it."

In response to a question from AFP, Mr Suga told the press conference that the administration was "aware of the incident" on Sunday but was "not in a position to comment on an individual case".

Tokyo police said on Monday that nothing was known of the man's condition nearly 24 hours after he was rushed to hospital with severe burns.

Popular protest in Japan has tended over recent decades to be muted, and protest suicides are very rare, with only a handful taking place in living memory. In 1970, right-wing novelist Yukio Mishima disemboweled himself after a failed attempted coup, in protest against what he saw as an overly-meek state.

In 1967, a 73-year-old man set himself alight in front of the prime minister's official residence over the then-premier's support for US bombing of North Vietnam.