Japan's prime minister has likened the relaxation of strict rules on the country's military to the seismic shift of the Meiji Restoration - a moment widely understood as the birth of the modern nation.
The comments emerged on Tuesday after Shinzo Abe proclaimed Japan's powerful military had the right to go into battle in defence of allies, in so-called "collective self-defence", in a highly contentious change in the nation's pacifist stance.
The conservative premier, who has long cherished a desire to beef up Japan's armed forces, faced massive opposition from a population deeply wedded to the principle of pacifism that underpins its modern identity.
He has sought in public to play down the shift, which he said was a necessary update to better protect Japan in a region dominated by an increasingly assertive China and worried by an erratic North Korea, which yesterday lobbed rockets into the Sea of Japan, or East Sea.
But talking to senior officials of his Liberal Democratic Party he said "collective self-defence is as significant as the Meiji Restoration", Jiji Press reported, without citing sources.
The 1868 Meiji Restoration marks the beginning of modern Japan, when it cast off more than two centuries of feudalism under samurai warriors in which foreign travel was banned and the ports were closed to outsiders.
It saw the emperor return to pre-eminence at the pinnacle of the state and heralded the coming of rapid industrialisation that would lead to the first Sino-Japanese war and the disaster of the second world war.
Asked to expand on the prime minister's comparison, deputy chief cabinet secretary Katsunobu Kato demurred, but did not deny it had been made.
"I decline to comment on it ... as the comment was not made in a public arena nor was recorded," he said. "However, the prime minister has said on various occasions, including at the press conference yesterday, that we protect people's lives and peace whatever happens."
China's state-run media launched a broadside against the relaxation of rules, casting it as a threat to Asian security.
"The Japanese government is eager to break through the post-war system," wrote the Communist Party's flagship People's Daily newspaper in an editorial.
It called the Abe government's move "a dangerous signal, as well as a wake-up call".
Tokyo and Beijing have long been at odds over islands in the East China Sea, and Beijing has argued that a reinterpretation of Japan's pacifist constitution could open the door to remilitarisation of a country it considers insufficiently penitent for its actions in the second world war.
In a commentary, the official Xinhua news agency challenged Tokyo with a question: "Is China on your military agenda?"
"Japan has a history of making sneaky attacks, as it did in launching wars with China, Russia and the United States in the recent 100 years," Xinhua wrote. "Now, Japan, with greater freedom to use military force, is making the world more worried."
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse