A parliamentary committee on Wednesday approved legislation that would expand the role of Japan's military after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling bloc forced the vote in the face of protests from some lawmakers and citizens.
Opposition lawmakers tried to stop the committee vote as hundreds of citizens protested outside.
The unpopular legislation was crafted after Abe's Cabinet adopted a new security policy last year that reinterpreted a part of Japan's post-World War II constitution that only permitted the nation's military to use force for its self-defense. The bills in question would allow Japan to also defend aggression against its allies — a concept called collective self-defense.
Abe has argued that Japan should better prepare for China's regional threat and do more to contribute to international peacekeeping efforts.
But opponents, including legal experts and academics, counter that the new interpretation is unconstitutional.
Polls show that about 80 percent of Japanese find the bills hard to swallow, and the majority of them say they think the legislation is unconstitutional.
That tension was on display Wednesday as opposition lawmakers attempted to thwart the committee's vote and hundreds chanted anti-war and anti-Abe slogans outside in protest.
Lawmakers rushed over to the podium and began to slap and grab at committee chairman Yasukazu Hamada as he cut off debate and began the voting process.
Some held up posters that read "No to a forced vote!" and "No to Abe politics!"
The legislation would "fundamentally change the way Japan has sought pacifism since the end of the war," Kiyomi Tsujimoto, an opposition Democratic Part of Japan lawmaker, told Abe before the vote.
Abe acknowledged Wednesday that the legislation doesn't have public support but said he could force the vote because his party has the voters' mandate — an attitude that has also angered critics and polarized the debate around the military legislation.
Abe has been increasingly criticized for being an autocratic leader and members of his right-wing Liberal Democratic Party came under fire recently after suggesting that two liberal newspapers on Okinawa should be destroyed.
"The existence of our constitution is threatened, the sovereignty-of-the-people principle is threatened, and our democracy is being threatened," Tsujimoto said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby declined to comment on the security legislation, calling it a domestic matter for Japan, a key US ally.
But he said the US welcomes "Japan's ongoing efforts to strengthen the alliance and play a more active role in regional and international security activities."