Japan's military shift is 'what an ally should naturally do', defence minister says
Defence minister receives warm reception from US counterpart, who calls reinterpretation of constitution 'bold, historic, landmark decision'
Japan's new policy on military action would allow its forces to come to the aid of a US naval ship under attack, Tokyo's defence minister said.
In a visit to Washington, Itsunori Onodera cited the hypothetical scenario as he sought to explain the Japanese government's recent controversial decision to ease restrictions on the country's military imposed after the second world war.
If US warships were sent to defend Japan, and those ships were attacked, currently the Japanese "constitution was interpreted to say we could not help that ship", Onodera told an audience at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
But taking action to assist an ally was "what an ally should naturally do", he said through an interpreter. "That's how this change in policy should be understood."
Onodera said the change approved by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet on July 1 would bolster Tokyo's alliance with the United States, opening the way to new forms of military co-operation between the two allies.
"We believe this will dramatically deepen our ties with the United States," Onodera said.
Japan's decision to reinterpret its pacifist constitution has provoked anger at home as well as among its neighbours, with China expressing outrage and alarm.
The groundbreaking shift in policy has come against the backdrop of soaring regional tensions with Beijing over disputed islands.
But the US has endorsed the change, and at a joint press conference at the Pentagon on Friday, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel praised Tokyo's move.
"This bold, historic, landmark decision will enable Japan to significantly increase its contribution to regional and global security and expand its role on the world stage," Hagel said.
Washington has long encouraged Japan to go ahead with the change in order to permit Tokyo to share more of the burden in what has been a lopsided defence relationship.
The Japanese minister sought to counter criticism of the shift in policy, arguing it would enable Tokyo to better protect its population and deter potential adversaries.
Onodera also said Japan had increased defence spending for the first time in years and was improving its "world-class" missile defence system, setting up amphibious units and strengthening its "maritime forces" to "protect our islands".
The rise in defence spending has been seen as a bid to counter China's growing military muscle and assertive stance on territorial claims.
Onodera said Japan was always open to dialogue with Beijing but that if the country was faced with "unilateral" actions, "we must respond firmly".
Japan and the US also agreed that Tokyo's move to expand the role of its armed forces should be reflected in new bilateral defence co-operation guidelines due out by the end of the year.
Onodera said Tokyo and Washington agreed to compile a midterm report on the revision to the guidelines to "raise transparency" in a bid to keep Japan's neighbours updated.
Onodera also tried to assuage concerns that Japan is out of step with its allies in pressuring North Korea into denuclearisation, after Tokyo ended some of its unilateral sanctions earlier this month in return for Pyongyang's launch of a probe into the whereabouts of Japanese nationals allegedly abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.
"It does not mean at all that Japan is making light of the nuclear and missile issues. We will strengthen co-operation with the United States and South Korea," Onodera said.
Agence France-Presse, Kyodo
Group wants Japan's peace-loving population to win Nobel Prize
Campaigners are pushing for Japan's population to win this year's Nobel Peace Prize in a nod to the country's long-held pacifism, even as Tokyo controversially expands the scope of the military in a move that has sparked protests at home.
By Friday, the group had attracted more than 150,000 signatories to its petition, and organisers say Japan's 128 million residents are now among the possible candidates for the prestigious award. Even if the odds are slim, the message is just as important, said housewife Naoko Takasu, 37, who came up with the plan.
It was not possible to nominate Japan's pacifist constitution - put in place after the end of the second world war - so activists moved to get the peace-loving population on the prize list instead.
"The idea came to me when I was watching a TV report about the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the European Union," she said.
"Good initiatives can win the prize - that's what I learned from the news. And that made me think about Article 9 [of the constitution, which renounces war] ... If we succeed and win the prize, that would be a great way to share its ideals."
Yoshiaki Ishigaki, a member of the committee behind the push, said: "It is thanks to Article 9 that Japan has never been in a war for over 69 years.
"This decision [on the military] is totally against our constitution - we should maintain the article and share it with all nations to achieve world peace."
Ishigaki and other activists gathered recommendation letters from dozens of academics at home and abroad to submit to the Nobel committee.
At least half of Japan's population opposes a more aggressive military stance, according to recent polls.
The names of the 2014 Nobel laureates will be announced in October.