[TOKYO] Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's security bills are set to pass parliament's lower house on Thursday after a night of noisy protests, as his push to expand the role of the military risks further eroding his public support.
The move pits Mr Abe against voters uneasy about any move away from 70 years of postwar pacifism, even with a more assertive China on their doorstep. Into the night, activists chanted anti- war slogans through loudspeakers to a placard-holding crowd outside the legislature after a tense parliamentary committee meeting approved the bills.
"The bills didn't go through a democratic process," said Shin Hirayama, a 39-year-old architect demonstrating alongside his wife. "I don't mean to yell out loud, but I thought it was important to at least show my opinion."
Major protests in Japan are unusual, and the level of discord reflects deep concern about Mr Abe's changes. Even so, the bills are set to pass the lower house, where his coalition holds a two-thirds majority.
With opposition parties too fragmented to take advantage, further falls in Mr Abe's approval rating could spur a rival to emerge in a ruling party leadership election in September.
"There will be an uproar within the ruling coalition," independent political analyst Minoru Morita said of the potential fallout of the legislation. "The Abe administration will get through the crisis, but go into a difficult period."
The legislation enshrines in law Mr Abe's reinterpretation last year of the pacifist constitution and will bolster military ties with the US at a time Japan is embroiled in a territorial dispute with China. It will allow the military to defend other countries under certain circumstances.
Media polls show the majority of voters opposed the changes, and disapproval of the cabinet now surpasses approval.
Organisers of demonstrations outside parliament said 100,000 people gathered on Wednesday night. Local police declined to give an estimate. An approaching typhoon may damp protests planned over the next two days.
In 1960, massive rallies were led by students and trade unions against the ratification of a security treaty with the US The demonstrations, which sometimes turned violent, helped bring about the resignation of Abe's grandfather Nobusuke Kishi as prime minister.
The biggest protests in recent years were anti-nuclear rallies after the Fukushima plant meltdown in 2011, with one event at a Tokyo park attracting an estimated 170,000. The latest demonstrations could surpass that this summer, according to Koichi Nakano, professor of politics at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Power Balance Prior to Wednesday's vote, Abe told committee members that the legislation was required because of changes in the power balance of both the world and the region.
"The security legislation is needed so that Japan can respond without pause," Abe said. He expressed regret that he had not gained public understanding and said he would continue to explain.
In the same session, opposition Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Kiyomi Tsujimoto wept as she made her case against the legislation. "I can't accept the forcible passage of the bills," she said. "The Abe administration should step down." If the upper house refuses to take up the bills, a second vote in the lower house can pass them into law with a two-thirds majority.
"It's too early to tell if this fracas in the Diet will have a lasting impact on the Abe cabinet's political capital," said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
The changes in security policy are by no means the only challenge facing Abe.
War Anniversary How he handles next month's 70th anniversary of the end of World War II could impact a fragile recovery in ties with China. The approaching re-start of a nuclear reactor following the Fukushima disaster is also sparking protests.
Weakness in Japan's exports and production and continued sluggishness in consumer spending after last year's sales-tax hike are increasing the challenges in reflating the world's third-biggest economy. The Bank of Japan on Wednesday lowered its growth outlook for this fiscal year to 1.7 per cent from 2 per cent.
Even Mr Abe's success in winning the right to host the 2020 Olympics has been overshadowed by a controversy over the ballooning cost of the main stadium. Kyodo news reported Wednesday the government was considering changes to the venue plan.
A July 10-12 poll by public broadcaster NHK showed Abe's support fell 7 percentage points to 41 per cent. Disapproval jumped to 43 per cent from 34 per cent.
Even so, none of the opposition parties has gathered substantial voter support, and no candidate has emerged so far to run against Abe in the Liberal Democratic Party leadership ballot.
"His support rate will of course fall after the passage of the bills," said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a politics professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. "I think the administration has some policy with news value in mind to restore support after that," he added, singling out any rethink of the Olympic stadium as a potential boost.