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Friday, June 9, 2006

Cabinet set to OK defense ministry bill

Staff writer

The Cabinet is set to endorse and submit to the Diet a controversial bill Friday that would upgrade the Defense Agency to a full-fledged ministry, but chances are the measure won't be voted on before the legislative session ends June 18.

Civilian officials at the agency and members of the Self-Defense Forces have long sought ministry status, but the proposal is politically sensitive because of memories of Japan's militarist past.

The bill is unlikely to be passed during the current Diet session because there isn't enough time for deliberation, government sources said. Passage is seen as more likely in the extraordinary session expected to convene in the fall.

Prospects for the bill look bright first because New Komeito, the Liberal Democratic Party's junior partner in the ruling bloc, has softened its dovish stance on defense issues.

New Komeito had long been the main stumbling block to the Defense Agency upgrade, with the LDP pushing for the change. But it now looks set to go ahead.

"Treating it as the priority security issue, we would like to have (the bill) passed during the extraordinary session," New Komeito leader Takenori Kanzaki told a news conference Wednesday. "To have it enacted during the extraordinary session in the fall, we should submit it to the current Diet session. Otherwise it will be difficult."

Defense Agency officials have argued that being a ministry would enhance the body's prestige in security talks and exchanges with overseas counterparts.

Under the current system, the prime minister, not the director general of the Defense Agency, is in charge of the agency and has the final say in key decisions, including whether to seek Cabinet approval of important policy matters, and the appointment of senior agency officials.

Under the new legislation, the defense minister, instead of the prime minister, would also be able to decide to provide logistic supplies to the U.S. military in an emergency.

The prime minister's authority as supreme commander of the SDF will continue under the bill, but the defense minister would have authority to propose policies and personnel appointments to the Cabinet.

The bill would also make overseas operations, including United Nations peacekeeping and disaster relief efforts, a basic mission of the SDF. Overseas operations are given lower priority at present, as defined in the "Miscellaneous Provisions" of the SDF Law.

To allay any public concerns about the amount of power a ministry would have, agency officials have stressed that civilian control of the military and Japan's exclusively defense-oriented security policy will remain firmly in place.

"Transforming the Defense Agency into a ministry has been an issue of a highly political nature and has often been discussed in the Diet," Defense Vice Minister Takemasa Moriya said Thursday.

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The Japan Times

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