Japan's lower house of parliament has approved legislation that would allow an expanded role for the nation's military in a vote boycotted by the opposition.
The vote Thursday came one day after Prime Minster Shinzo Abe's ruling bloc forced the bills through a committee despite intensifying protests.
"The security situation around Japan is getting tougher," said Prime Minister Abe after the vote. "These bills are vital to protect the Japanese people's lives and prevent war."
Opposition lawmakers are upset that Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, rammed the legislation through a parliamentary committee, without holding what they consider to be sufficient discussion.
'Without much debate'
"If we allow the security bills to be forced through without much debate, Japan will be taking a very big step towards becoming a country, as envisioned by the LDP, that can easily use military power abroad," said Katsuo Okada, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.
The legislation, among other things, would allow Japan's military to exercise what is referred to as "collective self-defense." It would also be able to defend friendly countries that come under attack.
Abe says a bolder security stance, welcomed by ally Washington, is essential to meet new challenges, such as those from a rising China.
Beijing's foreign ministry on Thursday condemned the passage of the legislation, saying it calls into question whether Japan will continue its "exclusively defense-oriented" policies adopted after World War Two.
"We solemnly urge the Japanese side to draw hard lessons from history, stick to the path of peaceful development, and refrain from jeopardizing China's sovereignty and security interests or crippling regional peace and stability," said spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
The legislation was crafted after Abe's Cabinet last year adopted a new interpretation to Japan's pacifist constitution, which has been in place since the end of World War Two.
Upper house action
The legislation now moves to the upper house, and if no vote is taken after 60 days it will be returned to the lower house, where Abe's coalition can enact it with a two-thirds majority.
The changes, reflected in new U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines, would also expand the scope for Japan's military to provide logistics support to friendly countries, relax limits on peace-keeping operations and make it easier to respond to "grey zone" incidents falling short of war.
Opponents say the revisions could entangle Japan in U.S.-led conflicts around the globe and violate pacifist Article Nine of the U.S-drafted, post-war constitution.
Abe, who returned to office in 2012 pledging to bolster Japan's defense and reboot the economy, has seen his support slip to around 40 percent on voter doubts about the legislation.
On Wednesday, crowds of protesters – organizers said about 100,000 – gathered near parliament. Many stayed well into the night, chanting and holding up placards reading "Abe, quit," "No War, No Killing" and "Scrap the War Bills."
The protest was reminiscent of those that toppled Abe's grandfather from the premiership 55 years ago after he rammed a revised U.S.-Japan security pact through parliament.
Some material for this report came from Reuters and AFP.