Japan's ruling bloc to vote on military bills amid protests

TOKYO: Opposition lawmakers and thousands of demonstrators were staging last-ditch protests in a political showdown Wednesday as Japan's ruling party started a final push to pass security legislation to expand the role of the country's military.

The bills would allow the military to defend Japan's allies even when the country isn't under attack, work more closely with the US and other allies, and do more in international peacekeeping.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says Japan needs the bills to bolster its defense amid China's growing assertiveness and to share the global peacekeeping effort. Opponents say the legislation violates Japan's war-renouncing constitution, while putting Japan at risk of being embroiled in US-led wars.

Opposition lawmakers talked of filibuster attempts, including preventing colleagues from entering the chamber of the committee on the security legislation in parliament's upper house, where the bills were to be voted on later Wednesday, and proposing a non-confidence vote against Abe's Cabinet at a subsequent house vote, expected Thursday. They were backed up by thousands of protesters who gathered outside the parliament building.

The protesters shouted "Scrap the bills right now" and "No to war bills," while flashing placards with anti-Abe and anti-war messages.

While the bills were being debated in parliament, new faces were joining the ranks of protesters typically made up of labor union members and graying left-wing activists.

Over the past few months, a group of students has led the protests, which have steadily grown to tens of thousands who fill the streets outside Tokyo's parliament every Friday and often on weekends.

"Anyone who understands the basic principle of the constitution cannot help but oppose the legislation," Aki Okuda, a leader of the group Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracies, told reporters. "It's ridiculous, and the bills' legal questions have fueled the people's anger."

As the group became influential, Okuda was invited to speak at a parliamentary hearing Tuesday, when he urged lawmakers "to listen to the people's voices," and "not make us think it's absurd to take politics seriously."

The bills, passed by the more powerful lower house in July, have since been debated in the upper house. Abe's ruling party wants to have them approved by Friday to avoid a swelling of protests during the upcoming five-day weekend. Abe also has promised the U.S. the bills would pass in parliament by this summer.

The forced vote in the lower house has fueled the protests, while media surveys have consistently showed the majority of respondents opposing the legislation. One released Monday by the liberal-leaning Asahi newspaper showed 54 percent of the respondents opposing the bills, compared to 29 percent supporting them.

Katsuya Okada, head of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, said it was "outrageous" for Abe's ruling block to rush a vote on legislation that has split the nation. "We must join our forces and block their ploy," he said.

Despite the start of the committee meeting being delayed on Wednesday, the bills are likely to be passed eventually because Abe's ruling bloc has the majority in the house.

That, however, won't stop the protests, Okuda said.

"Rallies are no longer a rarity in Japan. It's become part of our everyday life," he said. "People have started raising their voices, across generations and regions. I'm sure this would affect future election results."