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    Japanese Lawmakers Endorse Upgrade for Defense Agency

    Japan's Defense Agency is about to be upgraded to a full-fledged ministry. VOA's Steve Herman reports from Tokyo on the significance of the move.  

    Japan's lower house of Parliament voted Thursday to rename the Defense Agency the Defense Ministry in January.

    It is an idea that has been around since the agency was created more than 50 years ago to oversee Japan's post-World War II defense forces.

    But the reality of having a powerful minister overseeing military matters has been opposed by many Japanese liberals, who desired a permanent break with the country's militarist era, during which Tokyo colonized much of Asia and was eventually defeated by the Allied forces in 1945.

    Many conservative politicians have worked for the past 15 years to gradually loosen the constitutional restrictions imposed on Japan's defense institutions. The Constitution contains a pacifism clause.

    Former National Defense University President Masashi Nishihara credits Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with overcoming the political barriers to upgrading the defense establishment. But he says Japan's neighbors should not read too much into the change.

    "It's not really a new era. I would simply say it's has been long overdue," said Nishihara. "The work has only been possible with Abe who is willing to go through this, simply to restore the status of the Self- Defense Forces to a proper state."

    And that proper state means giving Japan's defense boss parity with his counterparts overseas.

    Nishihara, who is now the director of the Research Institute for Peace and Security, says the status quo has been frustrating for Japan's Defense Agency director-general.

    "When he meets with [U.S. Defense] Secretary Rumsfeld, it's not really an equal basis because it's an agency here," he said.

    The defense minister at home will get an equal seat at the table with other members of Mr. Abe's Cabinet. The minister will be able to convene Cabinet meetings, push new legislation and have greater control over the national defense budget.

    While members of parliament from the far left opposed the change, the main opposition Democratic Party endorsed it. But the Democrats insisted on defense issues remaining under strict civilian control. The prime minister continues to be the ultimate commander of Japan's armed forces, estimated to be the fourth largest in the world in terms of budget.


    Steve Herman

    A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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