Japan's lower chamber passes controversial security bills

Policemen block demonstrators protesting against controversial security bills outside Japan's parliament in Tokyo, Japan, on July 15, 2015.
Policemen block demonstrators protesting against controversial security bills outside Japan's parliament in Tokyo, Japan, on July 15, 2015.PHOTO: EPA

TOKYO (AFP) - Controversial security bills that opponents say will undermine 70 years of pacifism and could see Japanese troops fighting abroad for the first time since World War II passed through the powerful lower house of parliament on Thursday.

After impassioned speeches from senior lawmakers, opposition parties boycotted the ballot, which will loosen the shackles on the country’s military, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition approving the legislation.

“The security situation surrounding Japan is increasingly severe,” Abe told reporters after the vote, in an apparent reference to the rise of China.

“These bills are necessary to protect Japanese people’s lives and prevent a war before it breaks out.”

The bills are now expected to move to the upper chamber.

While Abe’s coalition also has a majority in the upper house, commentators say it is possible the chamber could reject, or amend the bills.

However, the lower house can overturn those changes with a two-thirds majority – well within the scope of what Abe controls.

The prime minister, a robust nationalist, wants what he calls a normalisation of Japan’s military posture, which has been constrained by a constitution imposed by US occupiers after World War II.

Unable to muster support to amend clauses enshrining pacifism, Abe opted instead to re-interpret the document for the purpose of his bills, ignoring warnings from scholars and lawyers that his bills are unconstitutional.

- Chaotic scenes -

While Thursday’s vote represents a victory for Abe, there are growing signs that the campaign has taken a political toll – opinion polls show the vast majority of the public is against the bills, and Abe’s approval rating is dropping.

There were chaotic scenes in a parliamentary committee room on Wednesday as opposition lawmakers thronged the floor in an unsuccessful bid to block the bills.

Dozens of politicians held signs protesting against what they said was the “forced” passage of legislation, in a way they say is anathema to the country’s pacifist constitution.

Lawmakers chanted “nay, nay, nay” and held posters saying “No to Abe politics", and “No to a forced decision", as their Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) colleagues pressed on with the vote, which they won comfortably.

Chief among the changes that the legislation will enable is the option for the military to go into battle to protect allies – so called “collective defence” – even if there is no direct threat to Japan or its people, something successive governments have ruled out.

Protesters, which include a large number of middle-aged and elderly people, say that provision will mean Japan gets dragged into American wars in far-flung parts of the globe.

But supporters say the bar for involvement in any conflict will remain much higher than for many other nations.

They say the legislation is needed to take account of the shifting security environment in Asia, where North Korea remains as volatile and unpredictable as ever, and China is increasingly perceived to be throwing its weight around.