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Japan lawmakers move toward allowing troops to fight overseas (+video)

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Yuya Shino/Reuters

(Read caption) Japanese lawmakers scuffled in parliament on Thursday as the governing coalition passed legislation for a security policy shift that would allow troops to fight abroad for the first time since World War II.

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Scuffles broke out among a scrum of Japanese lawmakers in the normally staid parliament Thursday as the nation moved closer to enacting laws allowing its military to fight abroad for the first time in 70 years.

The legislation would free Japanese forces to conduct operations, including alongside with the US military, even if the country itself is not attacked. The laws challenge decades of pacifism in Japan and work around Article 9 of the nation’s constitution, which is why opponents have been so vocal for the past few months. 

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A committee vote in the upper house today was taken without an audible announcement, causing opposition lawmakers to surge to the podium as the measure passed. Earlier they tried to pass a vote of no confidence against the committee chairman. 

The Associated Press reports that a member of parliament from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party said:

"Although it was unfortunate that the bills had to be approved this way, they are absolutely needed in order to protect the lives and happiness of the people," Masahisa Sato … told public broadcaster NHK shortly after the vote. "We are relieved. Now we will do our utmost for approval of the bills in a house vote."

Japan has been inching towards a more robust and “normal” military for nearly a decade. But Mr. Abe, seen as more hawkish than past Japanese leaders, has sped up the process, and against a backdrop of increasing assertive postures in East Asia by rival China. 

Two weeks ago, following a solemn 70th anniversary of World War II in Japan, China held an openly anti-Japanese military parade through Tiananmen Square in Beijing, presided over by President Xi Jinping. Mr. Xi comes to the US next week, his first state visit since formally taking power in 2012. 

Japan is the main US ally in Asia and Abe visited the White House last spring before giving an unprecedented speech to a joint session of Congress. During the trip he vowed to pass the new security legislation early this summer. But public opposition in Japan has been stiffer than he anticipated.

Abe does appear to have the votes for the bill to pass the Diet, perhaps on Friday, but public support is tepid. In an Asahi Shimbun poll in late August, 30 percent of respondents expressed support for the legislation and 51 percent were opposed. Asked whether they thought the legislation needed to be enacted during the current Diet session, only 20 percent of those polled said yes, while 65 percent answered no.

CNN today writes that: 

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Tens of thousands of anti-war demonstrators have been gathering in recent weeks outside the Japanese parliament building -- the largest demonstrations of their kind in Japan in more than 50 years. They are students and teachers, workers and retirees, grandchildren and grandparents.

Some wear work attire or school uniforms. Others have T-shirts, bandanas, or posters with spirited slogans like "No war! No Abe!" – a message to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – who has grown increasingly unpopular in recent months for doggedly pushing the controversial security bills through the Japanese parliament.

Despite low voter ratings Abe days ago was selected for another three-year term as head of the LDP. He earlier served as a key aide to former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi then himself became prime minister before stepping amid scandal and his party's steep losses in the Diet. He became prime minister again in 2012. Abe comes from a prominent family and is known as a nationalist who wants to restore pride in Japan. Bloomberg writes today that:

Abe, whose grandfather served in General Hideki Tojo’s war cabinet, has argued a more robust defense policy is needed given China’s muscle flexing and the threat from international terrorism. China and South Korea, two victims of Japan’s 20th century aggression, have accused Abe of reviving militarism.