GOTEMBA, Japan — Japan's military showcased its ability to defend remote islands Tuesday, as its role expands at home and abroad under new defense policies instituted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that have divided the nation.
The military began large-scale annual "Fire Power" exercises at the foot of Mount Fuji aimed at repelling a hypothetical invasion of far-off Japanese islands, defense officials said.
Lt. Kunikazu Takahashi, spokesman for Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, said the exercises, which last until Sunday, follow new defense guidelines that emphasize island defense.
The defense plans, approved in December, reflect a shift in Japan's defense priorities from its northern reaches near Russia to the East China Sea, where Tokyo and Beijing are locked in a dispute over a chain of uninhabited islands. Under the guidelines, Japan is setting up an amphibious unit similar to the U.S. Marines to respond quickly to any invasion of those islands.
"We believe such arrangements can discourage any foreign invasion," Takahashi said in an interview during the exercise. "It would be best if we can defend our land without fighting."
Abe's Cabinet approved in July a reinterpretation of Japan's war-renouncing constitution, which was drafted under U.S. direction after World War II, to allow the military to defend foreign countries. The endorsement of what is known as the right to collective self-defense has sharply divided public opinion, mainly due to sensitivity over Japan's wartime past.
Air force veteran Toshiya Hamada, 80, welcomed the decision. "It doesn't mean we want to wage war, but we need to gain strength because we don't want to go to war," he said. "I know soldiers feel most strongly about that because they are the first ones to go to the front line."
But Naomi Uchida, 36, who came to see the exercise with her husband and two children, said she doesn't think Japan needs to expand its military role.
"Japan is safe as it is," she said. "I'm worried if my boy says he wants to join the army."
Fighter jets, attack helicopters and tanks, guided missile systems and artillery fired Tuesday at targets at the base of Mount Fuji, where soldiers demonstrated tactics to fight off foreign invaders.
The live-fire exercises involve 2,300 troops, 20 aircraft and 80 tanks and armored vehicles, among other equipment.
Elsewhere in Asia, some 7,000 troops from China, Russia and four central Asia countries gathered Tuesday in Inner Mongolia for anti-terrorism drills called Peace Mission-2014, China's Xinhua News Agency reported.
In South Korea, 50,000 members of the military and 30,000 American counterparts began an annual two-week computer-aided joint war exercise Monday to improve their preparedness for any hostilities with North Korea.