Japan yesterday loosened the bonds on its powerful military, proclaiming the right to go into battle in defence of allies, in a highly controversial shift in the nation's pacifist stance.
After months of political horsetrading and browbeating of opponents, conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his cabinet had formally endorsed a reinterpretation of rules that have banned the use of armed force except in very narrowly-defined circumstances.
"There is a misunderstanding that Japan will be involved in war in an effort to defend a foreign country. But this is impossible. It will be strictly a defensive measure to defend our people,"Abe told a press conference.
"There is no change in the general principle that we cannot send troops overseas," Abe told the televised news conference.
Abe has faced down widespread public opposition to the move, which climaxed at the weekend when a middle-aged man attempted suicide by setting himself on fire.
Supporters say the reinterpretation is necessary because of the worsening security situation in East Asia, where an ever more confident China is pushing its territorial claims and an erratic North Korea is threatening stability.
Under the new definition, Japanese troops will be able to come to the aid of allies -- primarily the US -- if they come under attack from a common enemy, even if Japan is not the object of the attack.
China has warned against the move, saying it opens the door to remilitarisation of a country that is not sufficiently penitent for its actions in World War II.
The move has received backing from Washington, which has long encouraged Japan to take on more of a role in a very lopsided defence treaty.
But it has caused anger at home, where the pacifism on which the constitution is built is an article of faith for many Japanese.
At least half the population opposes a more aggressive military stance, according to weekend newspaper polls.