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Historic shift as Japan redefines military's role

TOKYO -- Japan on Tuesday loosened the bonds on its powerful military, proclaiming the right to go into battle in defense 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.

“I will protect Japanese people's lives and peaceful existence. As the prime minister, I have this grave responsibility. With this determination, the cabinet approved the basic policy for national security,” Abe told a press conference.

“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 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.

While the move to allow so-called “collective self-defense” needs parliamentary approval, the control of both chambers that Abe's Liberal Democratic Party enjoys renders this a formality.

Abe had originally planned to change Article 9 of the U.S.-imposed constitution, which was adopted after World War II and renounces “the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

But unable to muster the two-thirds majority he needed in both houses and unlikely to get an endorsement from the public in the required referendum, he changed tack, using what opponents say is sleight of hand to alter what the clause means.

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 U.S. — if they come under attack from a common enemy, even if Japan is not the object of the attack.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo, Tuesday, July 1. (AP)

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