Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called Tuesday for the groundwork to be laid for a review of the government's current interpretation of the Constitution to enable Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense.
Abe issued the call as a government panel of experts on security matters resumed discussions after a seven-month hiatus, as he aims to redefine the country's defense posture amid security challenges such as China's maritime assertiveness and North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
The panel, headed by Shunji Yanai, a former ambassador to the United States, is expected to consider which countries under armed attack Japan would defend and where the Self-Defense Forces could be deployed overseas for that purpose.
Another focus will be whether the SDF should be allowed to take part in U.N.-led collective security operations, as Abe said earlier that Japan needs to take on a greater security role and pursue what he describes as "an active pacifism" to ensure global peace and stability.
The 14-member panel is expected to urge the government to exercise the right of collective self-defense, or coming to the defense of an ally under armed attack, in a report it will submit to Abe by the end of the year.
"We have seen a drastic change in the global balance of power in recent years, especially the rapid rise of emerging nations...and the situation in East Asia has become increasingly severe," Abe told the panel in a meeting at the prime minister's office.
"We need to face what has changed since the Constitution was created (after World War II) and I hope discussions by the panel will form the basis for Japan in considering how to interpret the Constitution in line with the new era," he said.
Under the government's interpretation of the Constitution, Japan is not allowed to exercise the right of collective self-defense, given the war-renouncing Article 9, which bans the use of force as a means of settling international disputes.
However, it is uncertain whether Abe's Liberal Democratic Party will be able to secure the support of its junior coalition partner, the New Komeito party, which is cautious about the prime minister's push to make such action possible.
In Tuesday's meeting, the panel discussed an array of security challenges facing Japan, such as ensuring the safety of sea lanes and whether the SDF should be able to rescue foreign nationals who come under attack when engaged in peacekeeping operations abroad, according to Shinichi Kitaoka, acting chairman of the panel.
Kitaoka, president of the International University of Japan, said there was a view within the panel that Japan should consider how to respond when the SDF cannot be dispatched for defense operations as Japan has not come under armed attack, an apparent reference to heightened tensions with China in the East China Sea.
"One example would be a situation in which a submarine enters Japan's territorial waters and it does not leave despite our requests. We cannot do anything other than to tell them to leave," Kitaoka said.
Chinese ships and airplanes have repeatedly entered waters around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in protest at Japan's effective nationalization of the China-claimed islands in September last year.
Speaking at the meeting, Abe, who took office in December, said the security environment around Japan has become "all the more severe."
With much of his popularity stemming from his "Abenomics" economic policies, however, the prime minister's push for controversial policies such as amending the pacifist Constitution took a back seat until after the House of Councillors election in July in which the LDP won a landslide victory.
In 2008, the same members of a similar panel launched by Abe during his first term in office proposed that Japan should be allowed to exercise the right on certain conditions -- when defending U.S. vessels attacked on the high seas, and intercepting ballistic missiles targeting U.S. soil.
To take an integrated approach to security threats, Abe has ordered a review of the Defense Ministry's defense program guidelines by year-end to bolster the marine functions of the SDF.
The government is now aiming to create a Japanese version of the U.S. National Security Council, and formulate a national security strategy, the first of its kind for Japan, to be used as the basis for its NSC.