Japan's prime minister has called for a review of legal limits on the military's ability to fight overseas, signalling a potential landmark change in a security policy long constrained by the pacifist, post-war constitution.
Shinzo Abe also pledged on Thursday that Japan would stick to a peaceful path and not again become a "country that wages war", seeking to address concerns among Asian neighbours such as rival China as well as wary Japanese voters.
"Japan has walked the path of a peaceful country for nearly 70 years since the end of World War Two. That path will not change. But we cannot protect our peaceful lives simply by repeating that we are a peaceful country. Our peaceful lives may suddenly confront a crisis. Can anyone say that won't happen?" Abe said at a nationally televised news conference.
We urge Japan to respect the legitimate and reasonable security concerns of countries in the region, adhere to the path of peaceful development, earnestly face up to and reflect on history, and play a constructive role in the regional peace and stability,
"I think that we, the government, must confront this reality head on. It is necessary to deepen cooperation with other countries so that we can seamlessly ... cope with any situation to protect our peaceful lives."
A lifting of the ban would be welcome to Japan's ally the United States as it wants the country to bear a greater burden of its own defence, but would likely draw criticism from China, whose ties with Tokyo have been strained by a territorial row and the legacy of Japan's past aggression.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying criticised the Abe administration for taking "negative actions" that raised concerns about Japan's true motives.
"We urge Japan to respect the legitimate and reasonable security concerns of countries in the region, adhere to the path of peaceful development, earnestly face up to and reflect on history, and play a constructive role in the regional peace and stability," Hua told a daily news briefing on Thursday.
Abe said the government would not adopt a recommendation by his private advisers that Japan also lift its ban on taking part in UN-led collective security operations.
In their report issued earlier on Thursday, Abe's advisers urged sweeping changes in a security policy long based on the principle that Japan has the right to defend itself with the minimum force necessary, but that combat abroad exceeds the limit imposed by the constitution's pacifist Article 9.
Japan has gradually loosened the restrictions of Article 9 over the years to allow overseas deployments of troops in limited circumstances, but never to use their weapons to fight for others.