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Breaking Taboo, Japan Votes To Create Defense Ministry

While largely symbolic, the bill will help the military in domestic power wrangling by giving the defense minister a spot in cabinet meetings with the right to make budget requests.
by Harumi Ozawa
Tokyo (AFP) Nov 30, 2006
Japan's lower house of parliament on Thursday passed a bill to create a cabinet-level defense ministry for the first time since World War II. Since its defeat, Japan has had a "Defense Agency" with lower standing than full-fledged ministries as the US-imposed 1947 constitution declared the country to be pacifist.

The reform would give the Defense Agency Director-General Fumio Kyuma the title of defense minister, although Japanese troops would still be called the "Self-Defense Forces."

The bill overwhelmingly passed the lower house with support of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's coalition as well as the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

"This is good because Japan should carry out its role in the international community with a ministry," said Hidenao Nakagawa, secretary general of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party.

"I welcome that the Democratic Party understood the role of the Self-Defense Forces and supported the bill."

The bill will be sent to the upper house, where the ruling coalition also enjoys a majority. Abe wants the proposal to be enacted before the current parliament session ends on December 15.

While largely symbolic, the bill will help the military in domestic power wrangling by giving the defense minister a spot in cabinet meetings with the right to make budget requests.

Previous attempts to create a defense ministry stalled over political sensitivities in light of Japan's past aggression and fears of upsetting neighboring countries.

Abe, Japan's first premier born after World War II, vowed to create a defense ministry in his first policy speech after taking over from Junichiro Koizumi in late September.

Abe also supports rewriting the constitution to allow Japan to have a military again in name.

Only the small opposition Social Democratic and Communist parties opposed the elevation of the Defense Agency.

"It's extremely regrettable that the bill passed the lower house," said Seiji Mataichi, secretary-general of the Social Democratic Party. "Our party strongly opposed redesigning an organization with the aim of building a country that can wage war."

Despite calling its troops the "Self-Defense Forces," Japan has one of the world's biggest military budgets at 4.81 trillion yen (41.6 billion dollars) a year.

The bill changes the status of troops to list overseas activities as one of their missions. Until now, deployments abroad were considered "extraordinary," leading the government to seek parliament approval.

The bill will also scrap the Defense Agency body that manages facilities after employees were arrested for alleged bid-rigging. Koizumi's government cited the scandal to delay the creation of the defense ministry.

Japan has been slowly shedding taboos linked to its war defeat.

Japan sent some 600 troops to Iraq on a reconstruction mission in its first deployment since World War II to a country where fighting is under way.

The troops, who helped in reconstruction, suffered no casualties and never even fired their weapons, relying on Australian, British and Dutch forces to protect them.

While seen as a way to enhance Japan's image overseas as more than an economic power, the Iraq mission was unpopular with the public which remains divided on how far to deviate from pacifism.

Since North Korea tested an atom bomb in October, senior officials have called on Japan to break the longstanding taboo of considering nuclear weapons, an idea rejected by Abe.

Foreign Minister Taro Aso said on Thursday that while Japan does not have plans to develop nuclear weapons, it has the technology to do so.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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