Tokyo (AFP) - Japan on Tuesday loosened restrictions on its powerful military, allowing it to go into battle in defence of allies, in a major and highly controversial shift for the nation's pacifist stance.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a press conference: "No matter what the 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."
But the conservative premier sought to dissuade critics' claims that this could see Japan dragged into overseas military conflicts, such as in Afghanistan or Iraq.
"There is a misunderstanding that Japan will be involved in war in an effort to defend a foreign country, but this is out of the question," Abe said.
"It will be strictly a defensive measure to defend our people. We will not resort to the use of force in order to defend foreign forces."
He added: "There will be no change at all in our principle not to allow the dispatch of forces abroad."
Tokyo's move to invoke the right to exercise so-called "collective self-defence" came despite widespread public opposition that climaxed at the weekend when a middle-aged man attempted suicide by setting himself on fire in Tokyo.
It was also likely to inflame tensions with neighbouring China and South Korea, which regularly accuse Japan of failing to atone for its aggressive wartime actions.
Abe had originally planned to change Article 9 of the US-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 change what the clause means.
Under the new interpretation, Japanese troops will be able to come to the aid of allies -- primarily the US -- if they come under attack from a common enemy, even if Japan is not the object of the attack.