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Japan moves to scale back restrictions on use of military power

By Martin Fackler

New York Times

LAST UPDATED: 08:37 p.m. HST, May 15, 2014

PUSAN, South Korea » Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be about to take one of his biggest steps yet to nudge Japan away from its postwar pacifism after a government advisory panel recommended Thursday that constitutional restrictions on the military be eased to allow Japanese forces to come to the aid of allied nations under attack.

The panel, which was appointed by the Abe government, called on Japan to adopt a new legal interpretation of its war-renouncing constitution that would permit an expanded role for its military, the Self-Defense Forces. Those forces have been strictly limited to protecting Japan's own territory and people since they were created soon after World War II.

The reinterpretation would allow Japanese armed forces to act in limited cases even when Japan is not at risk, such as by shooting down a North Korean missile headed toward the United States, something it cannot legally do now. The proposed change would also allow Japanese forces to play a larger role in U.N. peacekeeping operations, the panel said.

While Abe immediately voiced his support, the recommendations will be debated within his governing coalition, where they face opposition from a small Buddhist party.

Polls have also shown broad opposition in Japan, with many people concerned that the nationalistic Abe could use the proposed changes as a step toward dismantling Japan's postwar constitution and its rejection of war.

"This will stretch Article 9 beyond reasonable and logical limits," said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo, referring to the part of the constitution that renounces war as a means of resolving disputes.

Abe said the changes were needed to enable Japan to respond to an increasingly assertive China and a nuclear-armed North Korea by building closer security ties with the United States and forming alliances with democratic nations like Australia and India.

In a televised speech, Abe also said that a stronger military would help ensure the peace by allowing Japan to defend itself and contribute to regional stability, a doctrine that he has called "proactive pacifism."

"There is a misunderstanding that Japan will once again become a country that wages war, but I absolutely reject this," he said. "I will protect the principle of pacifism in the constitution. By increasing our deterrence, our country will be able to avoid becoming caught up in war."

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