Opposition lawmakers in Japan swarmed around Yasukazu Hamada, chairman of the committee that voted on the controversial security legislation, in an attempt to block the proceedings. (Shuji Kajiyama/AP)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s vision of a stronger Japan moved a step closer to becoming reality on Wednesday when a key parliamentary committee approved legislation that would allow Japanese troops to fight overseas for the first time since the end of World War II.

But the move sparked vehement criticism, with opposition lawmakers yelling and pushing in the usually staid parliament in an attempt to block the vote, while protests erupted nationwide in a rare outpouring of public anger.

“Abe, resign!” and “Stop fascists!” protesters shouted Wednesday night outside the Diet, where as many as 60,000 people gathered in the rain, according to the organizer, Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy. The demonstration was not raucous, though; this is Japan, after all. The group also advised protesters to drink plenty of water on what was a muggy night, urged them not to argue with police and organized trash collection.

The demonstrations came after a special committee of the lower house passed two bills that would significantly alter the nation’s postwar security framework, allowing the Japan Self-Defense Forces to aid allies if they came under attack and to be deployed overseas to support another army in combat.

Under the U.S.-written pacifist constitution imposed on the country after World War II, Japan has not been permitted to maintain a military and can act to defend itself only if facing a direct attack.

But Abe, who has pledged to return Japan to a “normal” footing, says the changes are needed to fend off a rising China and to support the United States, Tokyo’s closest ally. This has heightened concerns in China and South Korea, already worried about what they see as Abe’s historical revisionism regarding Imperial Japan’s actions in World War II, that the conservative prime minister wants to remilitarize the country.

Some legal experts in Japan have different concerns. Scholars, including some whom the government presented as expert witnesses before the special committee, have deemed the government’s moves to “reinterpret” the constitution as unconstitutional. What they say would be the more correct path — amending the constitution — is currently politically impossible because the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner do not control the upper house.

If the ruling bloc wins big in upper-house elections next year, it is expected to move toward amending the constitution, although it would probably start with less contentious issues than the role of the military.

The proposed changes are highly controversial in Japan, where a majority of the population remains committed to a pacifist constitution.

As the vote approached Wednesday morning, opposition lawmakers swarmed around the committee chairman, Yasukazu Hamada, yelling and pushing as they tried to stop the vote.

Unusually, the public broadcaster NHK, which airs major parliamentary proceedings, did not telecast the debate live. Instead, it showed clips on its news broadcasts. NHK is run by an ally of Abe’s, and its coverage is supportive of the prime minister’s efforts.

Katsuya Okada, head of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, accused the governing bloc of ramming through changes opposed by the public.

“These bills, which are strongly suspected of being unconstitutional and will majorly change security policies, were forcibly passed. I strongly protest against what happened,” he told reporters after the vote.

“Prime Minister Abe himself admitted that people’s understanding wasn’t deep, and was it necessary to vote on them [the bills] now? I say no. They should withdraw the measures and hold deliberations again,” Okada added.

An NHK poll published this week found that 41 percent of respondents approved of Abe’s performance as prime minister, down seven points from the previous month, while 43 percent disapproved of him, up nine points. More than half the respondents said there had not been enough discussion in the Diet about the legislation.

The government produced a manga comic book and an animated video to explain the bills to the public, moves widely seen as inadequate given that the proposed changes go to the core of Japan’s postwar identity.

“It’s true that people’s understanding hasn’t deepened,” Abe told the special committee before the vote. “That is why I want to put efforts into making more progress.”

The legislation is set to go Thursday to the full lower house, where the ruling bloc has the two-thirds majority needed to push it through, before proceeding to the upper house. Although the governing coalition does not have the majority needed there, the measures are expected to pass. If they do not, they will return to the lower house, which can approve the bills by itself after 60 days.

Fifield reported from Beijing.

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