Japan dispatched Friday a small group of warships to the Indian Ocean to provide non-combat assistance to the U.S. led military strikes on suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan. It is the first time since World War II that Japan has deployed troops in support of combat forces.
The reconnaissance mission of the three Japanese warships is controversial, in Japan and around Asia. As the two destroyers and a supply vessel set sail from Sasebo in Nagasaki Prefecture, supporters and protesters gathered at the docks, trying to out-shout each other. Surveys show that most Japanese approve of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's view that Japan must offer support to the U.S.-led war on terrorism. However, memories of Japan's World War II role remain strong and many Japanese are glad that the nation's constitution forbids an overseas combat role for its military. However, new laws allow Japanese troops to play a rear-guard role in support of the current U.S. military campaign.
Japan's Asian neighbors, including China and South Korea, are sensitive about what critics term resurgent Japanese militarism. However, since they both support the U.S.- led war on terrorism, there has been little overt disapproval of the Japanese naval mission.
The warships are expected to reach their destination in the Indian Ocean in about a week, and officials say they will be at sea for up to two months.
Japanese Defense Agency Chief General Nakatani told reporters Friday that officials are hammering out details of the country's overall mission.
He says the agency is drawing up plans that specify the activities and size of the Japanese Self Defense Forces contingent to be dispatched.
A key point under consideration is whether Japan will dispatch one of its four destroyers equipped with sophisticated Aegis radar. Military analysts suggest Tokyo is backing away from this option to avoid upsetting its Asian neighbors.