Japan's spirit is approaching its most dangerous stage in the past 100 years, Nobel literature laureate Kenzaburo Oe warned during a rally against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's push to bolster the nation's military.
Some 3,000 people rallied yesterday in a Tokyo park against government plans to soften Japan's constitutional commitment to pacifism and give its military a more active role.
"By exercising collective self-defence, Japan will directly participate in a war," Oe told the people at the rally. "I'm afraid that Japan's spirit is approaching its most dangerous stage in the past 100 years."
The protest in central Tokyo came as China called on the United States to restrain ally Japan at the end of talks between the American and Chinese defence chiefs.
A national opinion poll showed growing public opposition to Abe's plans for the Self-Defence Forces. He has argued that Japan needs to reinterpret its post-war pacifist constitution to permit "collective defence" - coming to the aid of an ally that is under attack.
That is not allowed under current readings of Article 9 of the US-imposed constitution, which says Japan forever renounces the use of force as a means of settling international disputes.
Previous governments have held that this means Japan's military may only open fire if fired upon, even if that entails leaving US counterparts in danger on the same battlefield.
The Asahi Shimbun reported that a poll of more than 2,000 adults nationwide showed 63 per cent oppose the concept of collective defence. That was up from 56 per cent last year and more than double the 29 per cent who support the idea. The percentage of those against revising Article 9 rose to 64 per cent from 52 per cent, the paper said in the poll published on Monday.
However, his position is welcomed in Washington, where there have long been calls for Japan to pull its own weight in a very one-sided security alliance. Unease in Japan about China's increasing assertiveness, and specifically its strident claims to disputed islands in the East China Sea, has helped bolster Abe's push to enhance the role of the military.
Defence Minister Chang Wanquan , during his meeting with US counterpart Chuck Hagel, said China would not take the initiative to stir up trouble with Japan, but warned that Beijing was ready to use its military if needed to safeguard its territory.
He said the US must "stay vigilant" against Japan's actions and "not be permissive and supportive" of Tokyo.
Washington has criticised Beijing's recent declaration of an air defence zone over a large swathe of the East China Sea, including disputed remote islands controlled by Japan but also claimed by China. Hagel was in Japan earlier this week, reassuring its leaders of ongoing US support. His trip to China comes weeks before US President Barack Obama is due to visit Asia to reinforce the country's commitment to its so-called pivot to the region.
Additional reporting by Reuters, Associated Press