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Japan's Expanded Military Role Prompts Protests - 2004-04-21

Japan's military has entered a new era with its dispatch of non-combat troops to Iraq and logistical support for coalition navies in the Persian Gulf region. The expanded role is not without controversy.

The decision to dispatch Japanese troops to Iraq prompted protests in the streets of Tokyo and in the chambers of Japan's parliament.

As recently as 1991, during the first Gulf War, it would have been unthinkable for politicians to debate such a dispatch seriously. At that time, Japan chose to send billions of dollars instead of hundreds of soldiers as its contribution to coalition efforts, a decision that drew international criticism.

Now, with Japan confronting global terrorism, neighboring North Korea eyeing the nuclear option, and a Chinese military buildup, a comfortable majority of lawmakers supports modifying Japan's pacifist constitution to give the military an expanded role.

The constitution was imposed on a defeated Japan after World War II by the American occupation administration. It severely restricted Japan's ability to create a military with any sort of offensive capability.

Instead, Japan created Ground, Maritime and Air Self Defense Forces, which kept a very low profile, occasionally visible at the scene of natural and man-made disasters, but appearing overseas only on the movie screen to fight Godzilla.

Slowly and quietly the Self Defense Forces have matured, and now enjoy one of the five-largest military budgets in the world.

General Hajime Massaki, the ground force's chief of staff, admits that many Japanese used to consider the agency a waste of taxpayer money.

He says a law allowing Japan to join a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Cambodia in 1992, and similar activities in East Timor more recently, changed public perceptions. Now, he says, Japan's forces are at a turning point.

That has some Japanese concerned. Tatsuya Yoshioka is a director of the non-governmental organization, Peace Boat.

"We can cooperate with the United Nations," said Tatsuya Yoshioka. "But, at the same time, I really doubt about that normalization of Japanese military forces. It is still a very controversial issue. Quite a lot of Japanese has a very strong doubt of the existence of the Japanese Defense Force."

The 550 Japanese soldiers currently stationed in southern Iraq are pushing the envelope even further.

Although they are limited to humanitarian relief and reconstruction, many Iraqis see the troops as partners in the U.S.-led military occupation of their country.

That belief may have prompted the abduction of five Japanese civilians in Iraq this month, with one group of kidnappers threatening to kill their hostages if the Self Defense Forces did not pull out.

Japan's three chiefs of staff, at an unprecedented joint news conference this week, agreed Japanese and Iraqi attitudes toward the dispatch would probably soften if the United Nations were to take a leading role in Iraq after sovereignty is handed back to the Iraqis on June 30.

Even without a larger U.N. role, few political analysts in Tokyo expect Japan to follow Spain and withdraw its troops - even if the situation deteriorated in Iraq or Japan were to become the target of a terrorist attack.

The reason, they say, is that Tokyo needs to maintain close military ties with Washington, to offset a growing threat from North Korea, and a challenge from a fast-developing China.

Koichi Furosho, chief of staff of the maritime force, says it is essential for Japan to share the hard work overseas if it is to have access to critical intelligence.

Admiral Furusho says that new, non-conventional threats mean that what is most important now is the sharing of information. He wants Japan to have a permanent place at the table with other navies and coast guards.

Japan's expanding role and desire to increase military cooperation is winning praise in Washington, as comments by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld illustrate.

"This evolution in Japan's security policy is creating new opportunities for our two countries to work together, to modernize our alliance and to transform our capabilities, and to strengthen our ability to deal with the new challenges of the 21st Century," said Donald Rumsfeld.

That modernization includes a state-of-the-art missile defense system to be built and deployed in and around Japan with American technology and support - a defense against North Korea.

The shift in the military's role is making some Asians nervous, especially in China and the Koreas, where memories of Japan's brutal occupation of much of the region before and during World War II remain painful.

Peace activist Yoshioka says preserving the pacifist element of the constitution would help alleviate fears of Japanese militarism.

"For the security and also stability of Northeast Asia I think Article Number Nine of the Japanese Constitution is working as a kind of conflict-prevention system," said Tatsuya Yoshioka.

Asians worry that the Japan has never come to terms with the misery it caused, and that lack of Japanese reflection - combined with an expanding and more powerful military - could set the stage for a repeat in the future.