According to recent opinion polls, more than half of Japanese citizens oppose their government adopting a more assertive military stance. Yet in July, it did just that, taking the decision to loosen restrictions on the use of its Self-Defence Forces (SDF) and declaring the nation’s right to go to war in defence of allies via collective self-defence. The move is controversial, as it represents a new interpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which was previously read as explicitly limiting Japan’s use of military force to the defence of its sovereign territory and its people.

Following the cabinet decision, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s approval ratings fell to below 50 per cent for the first time since he was re-elected in December 2012. The government’s unilateral decision flouts rules stipulating that changes to the constitution must be approved by a referendum and a two-thirds majority vote in parliament. Even among those supporters, this procedural cheating is causing concern for the future of Japan’s democracy.

In a nation where civil society is largely disengaged from politics, the sudden need to protect Japan’s post-War pacifism and the rule of law has revived social activism. In the days leading up to the cabinet decision, thousands gathered to protest outside the prime minister’s residence. Buddhist monks, pensioners, students, workers and mothers with pushchairs held placards and shouted ‘Don’t destroy the constitution!’ and ‘We don’t need collective self-defence!’.

In one dramatic act of protest, a middle-aged man set himself on fire in a busy shopping area. Approximately 160 prefectural and local governments have expressed their opposition to the aims of the reinterpretation or the manner in which it was carried out. Although such statements have no legal power, they serve as a political warning to the Abe government, which faces local elections next April.

The government also faces a legal challenge to its decision to expand the scope of the SDF. Retired civil servant Tokinao Chindo has filed a writ against the government for violating the constitution, and says that he hopes ‘other Japanese people will follow suit’.

A campaign to award this year’s Nobel Peace Prize – to be announced on 10 October – to the population of Japan in recognition of the nation’s post-War pacifism led to a petition with over 150,000 signatures. The people of Japan may deserve to win, but Prime Minister Abe – who would face the shame of collecting the prize in Oslo – certainly does not.

Tina Burrett