Japanese naval vessels sailed last month to support the U.S. led war on terrorism in Afghanistan, the country's first wartime military deployment since World War II.
Japan's Self-Defense Forces, or SDF, has a $50 billion annual budget and trains regularly with the U.S. military. It has more than 260,000 troops, who are well versed in the use of the SDF's modern, high-tech hardware, including advanced U.S. designed Aegis warships and F-15 fighter jets. Yet Japan's military differs significantly from armies in the United States and other leading industrial nations.
The difference is in the name: Self-Defense. The SDF, formed after World War Two, has been almost exclusively kept at home under the country's constitutional limitations on its military. Now, a back-up role in the war on terrorism has placed the SDF closer to combat than at any time in its history.
Weston Konishi is a program associate with the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington and an expert on Japanese military affairs. "For so long Japan did not have much influence and prestige in the world in terms of political power and military clout. So while this [deployment] does not represent a major change in that respect, it is a step forward," he says. "I think the Japanese public is gradually beginning to accept the Self-Defense Forces and sees this as a positive contribution to a very important international campaign."
The SDF deployment to back the U.S. led war on terrorism is controversial because to undertake it, Parliament had to pass legislation that essentially reinterprets Japan's pacifist constitution. Now, Japan is able to provide logistical support along with transportation and medical help to its allies.
The move sparked scattered protests and raised tensions between the government and the leading opposition Democratic Party, which wanted the legislation watered down. It was not the first time Japan revised its defense guidelines. Parliament passed new laws in 1999 allowing Tokyo to help American troops in case of an emergency in or near Japan.
It also created guidelines about ten years ago that allowed it to take part in United Nations peacekeeping missions. Japan updated those rules in November, loosening restrictions on the use of weapons, although the SDF's peacekeeping role is strictly non-combat.
Defense analysts say that the move to back U.S. troops in Afghanistan is the most high-profile change in Japan's post-war defense policy.
Akio Watanabe is the president of a Tokyo think tank called the Institute for Peace and Security. He points out that surveys show a majority of Japanese support the SDF's non-combat role in the war on terrorism. He says that for many Japanese, the deployment is a way of reclaiming the world's respect after a low point in 1991, when Japan contributed $13 billion, but no troops, to the allied effort in the Persian Gulf. "Despite a very substantial financial contribution the Japanese role was not very well received or appreciated by the United States or the local countries in the area [the Middle East]," says. Mr. Watanabe. "I think this is the basic background for the recently changed view within the Japanese government about the role of the Self-Defense Forces."
But what is a matter of pride for Japan is a cause for alarm for the country's neighbors, which have bitter memories of its World War Two militarism. Mr. Konishi says they fear that Tokyo could again become an aggressor. "I think it is accurate in that there is a great deal of concern among of Japan's neighbors on the Asian mainland, Korea and China. They are concerned that the SDF and Japan's military will develop into a stronger force in the region," says Mr. Konishi. "That is certainly true. But I think we are a long ways from Japan becoming anything like the belligerent nation it was before and during World War II."
Mr. Konishi and other analysts think the recent changes for the SDF are largely cosmetic, and will not allow the country to build a military capable of offensive action. The anti-war Constitution remains unchanged and the majority of the population, despite the support for the current mission, does not want it changed.
Military analysts say that the absence of official protest from Beijing or Seoul indicates that so far, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi has calmed worries over his country's military intentions. Still, China has urged Japan to tread carefully.