Debate over Japanese constitution intensifies as man sets himself alight

Japanese firefighters and investigators work at the scene of a self-immolation in Tokyo on Sunday, June 29, 2014.

Story highlights

  • Man sets himself on fire near busy Tokyo train station in apparent protest
  • The man appeared to be a pacifist protesting impending change to the Japanese constitution
  • "Re-interpreting" of document likely to go ahead Tuesday, despite widespread reservations

The debate over Japan's constitution took a grisly turn Sunday, as a lone dissenter set fire to himself in an apparent protest over plans to "reinterpret" the document.

Police received emergency calls beginning around 1 p.m. (local time) on Sunday that a man wearing a suit had climbed the frame of a pedestrian bridge near the busy Shinjuku train station in central Tokyo and was speaking through a megaphone. Onlookers said he used the device to criticize government plans to change the Japanese constitution.

Police officers smelled gasoline when they arrived, a police spokesman told CNN. Next to the man, who has not been named, were two plastic bottles containing what they believed to be fuel.

Police and firefighters tried to persuade the man to come down off the bridge. As a rescue team with a ladder truck approached him around 2 p.m., police say the man set himself on fire, shocking onlookers who had gathered below.

He was conscious when taken to hospital, where he continues to receive treatment. A police spokesperson told CNN that he will be charged with using flames in public without a permit, which is considered a minor offense.

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Self-immolation is a highly unusual form of protest in Japan.

Constitutional change

    The Abe administration has imminent plans to "reinterpret" the postwar document to allow for a greater military role overseas.

    Currently, Japan's constitution, signed into effect following the Second World War, allows for self-defense but does not authorize military action outside Japan. The changes would allow the Japanese Self Defense Force to engage in collective defense, which includes deploying soldiers internationally to defend the interests of Japanese allies.

    The government's proposal is expected to gain cabinet approval on July 1st after an agreement is finalized between Japan's main ruling parties, despite polls that say a majority of Japanese citizens oppose the measure.

    The timeframe is under scrutiny, with many wary that the changes are being pushed through too quickly.

    Supporters of the proposal say that it creates another, strategically important, buttress against increasing Chinese hegemony in the region. But opponents -- both domestically and abroad -- oppose the change to Article 9 of the document, which states "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes."

    The proposed change to the wording has also worried Japan's neighbors, who see the hawkish Abe as largely unrepentant for what most Asians view as war crimes committed by Japanese troops during the Second World War. The premier's visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine in December 2013 was criticized by some neighboring countries.