TOKYO — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s vision of a stronger Japan moved a step closer to becoming reality on Wednesday, when a key parliamentary committee approved legislation that would allow Japanese troops to fight overseas for the first time since World War II.
But the move sparked vehement criticism, with opposition lawmakers yelling and pushing in the usually staid Parliament in an attempt to block the vote, while protests erupted nationwide in a rare outpouring of public anger.
‘‘Abe, resign!’’ and ‘‘Stop fascists!’’ protesters shouted Wednesday night outside the Diet, where as many as 60,000 people gathered in the rain, according to the organizer, Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy.
The protest was not raucous. The group advised protesters to drink plenty of water on a muggy night, urged them not to argue with police, and organized trash collection.
Under the US-written pacifist constitution imposed after World War II, Japan was not permitted to maintain a military and can act to defend itself only if facing a direct attack. In 1954, Japan created the Self-Defense Forces, which can be deployed only within Japanese territory. It has participated in peace-keeping operations.
The legislation approved Wednesday by a special committee of the lower house consisted of two bills that would allow the Japan Self-Defense Forces to aid the United States if it came under attack and be deployed overseas to support another army in combat.
Abe, who has pledged to return Japan to a ‘‘normal’’ footing, said the changes are needed to fend off China and to support the United States, its closest ally. This has heightened concerns in China and South Korea, worried about what they see as Abe’s historical revisionism regarding Japan’s actions in World War II and about possible remilitarization.
Some in Japan have different concerns. Scholars, including some whom the government presented as expert witnesses before the committee, have deemed the government’s moves to ‘‘reinterpret’’ the constitution as unconstitutional.
What they say would be the more correct path — amending the constitution — is politically impossible because the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner do not control the upper house.
If the ruling bloc wins big in elections next year, it is expected to move toward amending the constitution, although it would probably start with less contentious issues.
The proposed changes are highly controversial in Japan, where a majority of the population remains committed to a pacifist constitution.
As the vote approached Wednesday morning, opposition lawmakers swarmed around the committee chairman, Yasukazu Hamada, yelling and pushing as they tried to stop the vote.
Public broadcaster NHK, which airs major parliamentary proceedings, did not telecast the debate live but showed clips on its news broadcasts. NHK is run by an ally of Abe’s, and its coverage is supportive of the prime minister’s efforts.
Katsuya Okada, head of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, accused the governing bloc of ramming through the changes.
‘‘These bills, which are strongly suspected of being unconstitutional and will majorly change security policies, were forcibly passed. I strongly protest against what happened,’’ he told reporters after the vote.
‘‘Prime Minister Abe himself admitted that people’s understanding wasn’t deep, and was it necessary to vote on them [the bills] now? I say no,” Okada added.
An NHK poll published this week found that 41 percent of respondents approved of Abe’s performance as prime minister, down seven points from the previous month. More than half the respondents said there had not been enough discussion in the Diet of the legislation.
The legislation is set to go Thursday to the full lower house, where the ruling bloc has more than enough seats to push it through, before proceeding to the upper house. Although the governing coalition does not have the majority needed there, the measures are expected to pass.