TOKYO -- Japan's Cabinet endorsed new rules Tuesday that would expand the nation's military role and give the government new powers in case of foreign attack. Opponents say the move runs afoul of Japan's post World War II pacifist constitution.
The measures are designed to give a greater latitude to the prime minister and the Self Defense Forces in time of military emergency. Cabinet endorsement brings the measures a major step closer to ratification.
Their adoption as law would be a victory for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who swept to power last year on pledges to bolster Japan's military. The three bills are to be sent today to Parliament, which has until mid-June to vote them into law.
"These are important bills for the protection of people's safety and must be considered in times of peace," Koizumi said after winning his Cabinet's endorsement.
Debate over the issue dates back to the 1970s. Japan has no detailed laws outlining how its Self Defense Forces may mobilize in the case of military attack or imminent attack from abroad.
Critics say dictating such guidelines is unconstitutional, stokes militarism and undercuts civil liberties.
On Tuesday, hundreds of activists rallied outside Parliament to demand the government scrap the plans.
The push for the bills got a major boost by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, as well as a December gunbattle between the Japanese Coast Guard and a suspected North Korean spy boat.
Koizumi insisted those incidents highlighted the need for better home defenses.
But opposition parties said the bills overemphasize military engagements and don't have enough specifics about countering terror and espionage.
The national circulation Mainichi newspaper echoed that concern, saying the measures have a "Cold War" mentality.