Legislators scuffled in Parliament and demonstrators took to the streets on Thursday as Japan’s governing coalition struggled to secure final passage of contentious legislation that would loosen decades-old limits on the country’s military.
The package of 11 bills was still tied up in Parliament’s upper house on Thursday evening, past an initial deadline set by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has spent considerable political capital trying to convince a skeptical public that Japan should play a more assertive role in global military affairs.
Scenes reminiscent of a rugby match played out Thursday in the committee chamber where lawmakers have been debating the bills for weeks. Opposition politicians tried to prevent voting by piling on top of the committee chairman and wrestling away his microphone. Governing party lawmakers pulled them away and formed a protective scrum around the chairman to allow him to call the vote. The scenes were broadcast live on television by the national broadcaster, NHK.
The committee eventually passed the legislation, and the next step was to be a vote by the full upper house. The timing of that vote remained unclear on Thursday evening.
If passed, the legislation would allow the Japanese military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, to cooperate more closely with the militaries of allies like the United States, by providing logistical support and, in certain circumstances, armed backup in international conflicts.
In the past, the Self-Defense Forces have played noncombat roles in United Nations peacekeeping operations and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the use of force has been limited by law to the direct defense of Japan.
Mr. Abe and other conservatives argue that the strictly defensive security policy that Japan has followed since the end of World War II is inadequate to meet modern-day threats like the growing military power of China. Critics worry that abandoning the policy would lead to Japan’s becoming involved in unnecessary foreign wars, and they contend that the legislation violates Japan’s antiwar Constitution.
CreditKimimasa Mayama/European Pressphoto Agency
Mr. Abe’s government, which controls a majority of seats in the legislature, has indicated that it still hopes to pass the bills by the end of this week. If it succeeds, it will be an important victory for the conservative leader, who has dedicated his career to correcting what he sees as an excessive, outdated national pacifism that is a legacy of Japan’s disastrous wartime experience.
His defense agenda is opposed by a majority of the public, however. Demonstrators had gathered in front of the Parliament building on Wednesday night as the upper house committee that has been debating the bills moved toward its final session. The session was ultimately delayed until Thursday by procedural haggling between Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and a group of opposition parties opposed to the bills.
Organizers put the number of demonstrators Wednesday night at 35,000, though the police said the crowd was about half that size. A few braved heavy rain to stay through the night and into Thursday, and the crowd was swelling again on Thursday evening.
Mr. Abe’s party and its junior partner, Komeito, have enough members in the upper house to pass the bills, but the opposition is using a number of delaying tactics — like lodging procedural objections and physically blocking governing party lawmakers from entering committee rooms — to draw out the process.
Though there is little they can do to prevent the bills’ ultimate passage, they may be hoping to further stoke public sentiment against the bills and inflict maximum political damage on Mr. Abe.
Parliament’s lower house approved the bills in July, under similarly tumultuous circumstances, and adoption by the upper house would ensure that they become law. Even if the upper house does not approve the bills, the government could send them back to the more powerful lower chamber, where it could use its overwhelming majority to override the upper house and pass the bills into law.