Shinzo Abe is president of the Liberal Democratic Party and was elected prime minister of Japan in December 2012. He also served as prime minister in 2006 after being elected by a special session of Japan’s National Diet, but resigned after less than a year.
Japanese cabinet set to relax defence rules despite strong opposition
Cabinet will rubber stamp dramatic changes to pacifist constitution today despite fiery protest and opposition from half the population
Julian Ryall in Tokyo
That a man set himself on fire on a busy Tokyo street demonstrates the depth of feeling against plans to relax Japan's rules of military engagement, according to opponents of the change.
But they admit there is little likelihood public sentiment will halt the dramatic shift in security policy before it is rubber-stamped by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet today.
Witnesses said the man, aged in his 50s or 60s, spoke through a megaphone while sitting on a pedestrian bridge to protest against the government's move before self-immolating as hundreds of people watched from below and from nearby buildings.
He was taken to hospital after suffering serious injuries, said Daiji Kubota, an officer at the Shinjuku police station
There is a sense the new laws are unlikely to be rolled back in future as a generation of people who never experienced the full horror of war believe it is in Japan's national interest to be able to exercise collective self-defence, or aiding an allied nation that comes under attack.
"We cannot turn this decision around now," said activist Chie Matsumoto with a resigned shrug. "We had hoped that public expressions of opposition would have an impact, but we were really pinning our hopes on New Komeito standing its ground."
New Komeito, the Buddhist-backed ally of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, has long been an advocate of protecting the terms of the war-renouncing constitution. But critics say it has caved in to LDP pressure.
"They were our last hope to stop Abe and his cabinet, but they have betrayed us," said Matsumoto. "The vast majority of their supporters have always been against anything that threatens peace in any way, and now they have done this."
According to a recent poll by the Nikkei business daily, half of the electorate is opposed to easing the ban on Japanese troops taking part in combat operations overseas, compared to just 34 per cent who say they support the prime minister's decision to "reinterpret" the terms of the constitution.
The remaining 16 per cent were undecided.
The change has also been criticised by 139 local councils, with the Aomori Municipal Assembly issuing a statement describing the move as "totally unacceptable".
"Altering the interpretation of the constitution based simply upon the opinion of the cabinet is an outrage that destroys the foundation of modern constitutionalism," it said.
Politicians from across party lines have allied themselves in 112 statements to the Diet from the 1,788 local assemblies across Japan.
Not that any such protestations will have an impact, believes Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.
"There is obviously a significant amount of opposition, but it is not the kind of powerful opposition that existed in 1960 at the renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty," he said.
"Then, memories of the war were still very immediate in people's minds because such a large part of the Japanese population had lived through the war and there was such a deep aversion to the idea of Japan getting involved in any kind of military action.
"Today, there is much less of that sort of opposition."
And even those vehemently opposed to any effort to revise or reinterpret the constitution accept that Japanese society will be even less likely to stand up for the nation's supreme law in the years ahead.
"I hear more young people now saying that Japan has to have the right to take military action, but that is because they are not of the generation that experienced the war," Matsumoto said. "And I include Abe in that as well; he never saw the war himself."
Additional reporting by Associated Press
Shinzo Abe to visit Australia next week
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Australia next week and make a rare address to Parliament, with his counterpart Tony Abbott yesterday trumpeting their "strong friendship".
The trip from July 7-10, which will include visits to Perth and the resource-rich Pilbara mining region, will be the first visit for bilateral talks by a Japanese leader since 2002.
The visit comes less than a month since Abbott was in Tokyo, where the two countries reached a long-awaited free trade deal.
Tokyo and Canberra also agreed to strengthen defence ties, moving towards a possible submarine deal.