TOKYO (Reuters) - When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe loosened the limits of Japan's pacifist constitution to drop a ban on its military fighting overseas, many experts said it was a step toward becoming a "normal country" able to do more in its own defense.
But Ichiro Ozawa, a one-time ruling party kingmaker who coined the phrase two decades ago, says Abe's policy is fundamentally different and risks leading Japan down a path with dangerous echoes of pre-war militarism.
Abe's cabinet took a step away from Japan's post-World War Two pacifism this month by dropping a ban on exercising the right of "collective self-defense", or aiding a friendly country under attack. That prohibition has kept troops from fighting abroad since 1945.
Ozawa used the phrase "normal country" in his 1994 book, "Blueprint for a New Japan", written after the 1990-1991 Gulf War. The constitution's constraints then limited Japan's contribution to the U.N.-backed military mission to providing cash.
Many policy-makers were embarrassed when the failure to put boots on the ground was derided abroad as "chequebook diplomacy".
"His ideas are different from the 'normal country' of which I spoke," Ozawa, 72, told Reuters in an interview.
"Mr. Abe’s concept is for Japan to have a sort of pre-war-style, great power military and economy - a kind of pre-war revival," he said.
"He is a good person, but I feel there is something rather dangerous about his political views and ideals as a top leader."
Ozawa has been a fixture in Japanese politics for four decades.
A heavyweight in the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, now headed by Abe, he bolted the LDP in 1993 and led a succession of opposition parties.
These included the Democratic Party of Japan, which took over from the LDP in a 2009 landslide poll, but was ousted when Abe surged back to power in 2012. Ozawa is now leader of the small opposition People's Life Party.
Abe's government - which avoids using the term "normal country" - has rejected suggestions by China and some domestic critics that it aims to revive pre-war style militarism.
Proponents say the policy shift, which revises a longstanding interpretation of the constitution's pacifist Article 9, is vital for Japan to cope with a tough security environment, including the rise of an increasingly assertive China and an unpredictable North Korea.
Ozawa, however, has long argued that the constitution limits Japan's military participation in conflicts not directly related to Japan to missions sanctioned by the United Nations.
Allowing participation in operations with allies in other conflicts not directly tied to Japan's defense would require amending the constitution, he says.
"The cabinet can adopt whatever resolution it likes, but there is no scope for reinterpretation," Ozawa said. "To call for a revision of Article 9 would be logical, and that is what a proper statesman should do."
As DPJ leader in 2007, Ozawa opposed a law allowing Japan to refuel foreign ships taking part in U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, one of the factors that forced Abe to resign abruptly in his first year-long term as premier.
He said the political tide that made him seem right-wing 20 years ago had shifted so much that he now comes across as leftist.
"In the past, I was called right-wing, now they call me left-wing. I have not changed at all," he said.
Additional reporting by Yuko Yoshikawa and Minami Funakoshi; Editing by Ron Popeski