TOKYO — Japan took a symbolically significant step toward playing a more active role in regional security Tuesday, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that his government would reinterpret the antiwar constitution to allow Japanese armed forces to come to the aid of friendly nations under attack.
The long-expected decision by Abe's Cabinet changes a more than six-decades-old reading of the constitution, which had strictly limited Japan's forces to acting solely in its own defense. The new interpretation, known as "collective self-defense," will allow Japan to use its large and technologically advanced military in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, such as coming to the aid of a U.S. ship under fire, or shooting down a ballistic missile aimed at the United States.
Abe had sought even broader leeway for his nation's military but was forced to compromise after resistance from both within his governing Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, a small Buddhist party.
In a sign of how potentially divisive the change could be, some 10,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the prime minister's residence the previous evening to protest the change. Still, most Japanese seemed to at least tentatively accept the change — a sign, analysts said, of the growing anxiety here over China's rising military might and its increasingly forceful claims to disputed islands now controlled by Japan.
"The growing pressure from China has changed the political debate within Japan," said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political expert at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo.