Japan has ordered its naval forces to begin preparations to deploy to the waters off Somalia to join an international fleet combating pirates in the region.

The order was issued Wednesday by Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada.  Hamada says the piracy in the Gulf of Aden is a threat both to Japan and the international community.

The fleet could be dispatched to the Gulf of Aden as early as March, after a bill outlining its exact mission is approved by parliament.  

Japan's post-World War II pacifist constitution limits its military to defensive operations.  This means the naval vessels can only act to protect Japanese-flagged ships or ships carrying Japanese nationals.  Prime Minister Taro Aso has introduced a new law that would allow Japanese naval warships to protect foreign vessels as well.  

The United States, China and several other countries also have put ships on patrol in the Gulf of Aden and Somalia's Indian Ocean coast.  

The International Maritime Bureau says Somali pirates attacked at least 111 ships last year -- an increase of nearly 200 percent from 2007.  Somalia has not had a functioning central government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a dictator. 

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters