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Japan to Upgrade Defense Agency to Ministry

Japan is preparing to upgrade its defense agency to a full-fledged ministry. The move paves the way for Japan's armed forces to play a greater role in international security, marking a shift from strict limitations on the use of its military.

Japan's Security Council and Cabinet, both led by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, on Thursday endorsed legislation to upgrade the Defense Agency to a Cabinet-level ministry.

An extraordinary session of Parliament is likely to approve the bill later this year to change the defense agency's status. Since the agency was set up 52-years ago it has kept a low profile in line with Japan's post-World War II pacifist constitution.

Defense Agency Director General Fukushiro Nukaga says the change would mean not only would his organization have greater control over its policies and budget, but the agency and troops would face new and heavy responsibilities.

Nukaga, who would become defense minister, says his agency needs to change its mentality to win the public's trust for such a major transformation.

Many Japanese are uncomfortable with again having a full-fledged military because of its brutal behavior in Asia in the early 20th century that led to Japan's disastrous defeat in the World War II.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, however, says Japan needs a military that can cope with the country's growing obligations abroad in the 21st century. Abe says it is necessary and only natural to give the Defense Agency status as a ministry, as is the case in other countries, so that Japan can respond appropriately to any emergency situation.

The changes also come as concern mounts in Japan about a perceived growing military threat from China and development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons by North Korea.

Japan's military, officially known as the Self Defense Forces, has been limited to non-combat missions outside the country because of the constitutional ban on the use of force to settle international disputes.

On Thursday, a Japanese court rejected a suit demanding that the Self Defense Forces be removed from Iraq. Japan has about 600 troops stationed outside the town of Samawah in southern Iraq engaged in non-combat activities, such as building schools and purifying water.