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Thursday, Dec. 14, 2006

Defense officials eager for status boost

Besides upgrade to ministry, overseas missions will get greater priority

Staff writer

With legislation to upgrade the Defense Agency to a ministry expected to clear the Diet this week, defense officials say they finally will be free of their identity complex.

Despite a budget of 4.79 trillion yen -- making Japan the world's fourth-biggest military spender -- and 240,000 Self-Defense Forces members -- the largest body among government organizations -- the agency has always held subordinate status.

The package of bills, which cleared the House of Representatives on Nov. 30, are expected to be passed by the House of Councilors on Friday and the agency is expected to become the Defense Ministry in January.

The package will also make overseas operations -- taboo under the long-standing security policy strictly limiting the SDF to defending the homeland -- one of the new ministry's primary missions.

Defense Agency officials have stressed that the strictly defensive security policy under the pacifist Constitution will not change in any way.

But while the bills may in fact be a matter of nominal change in the organizational status, experts say that at least psychologically, the legislation will boost the morale of defense officials and SDF personnel while possibly raising concern in other parts of Asia.

"The fact that Japan's defense body is treated as a small organization under the label of an agency instead of a ministry has been an expression of political will that Japan will not build more than the minimum necessary military capability," said Tetsuo Maeda, a highly regarded military journalist.

Until now, the Defense Agency has been a subordinate organization under the Cabinet Office, which is headed by the prime minister.

The prime minister, not the director general of the Defense Agency, has been in charge of national security, although the reality has been that the director general handled day-to-day defense matters in the prime minister's stead.

After the bills are passed, the defense chief will wield greater authority as a Cabinet minister, including the power to call a Cabinet meeting to consider defense-related legislation or SDF personnel affairs, and to send budget requests directly to the Finance Ministry.

Maeda pointed out that the Defense Agency was given its status as a subordinate agency in reflection of Japan's past military aggression and the postwar Constitution.

The Constitution was initially interpreted to prohibit the possession of any military forces. However, faced with the stern reality of the Cold War, the SDF was launched in 1954. At the same time, though, a number of strict legal constraints were placed on its activities.

Some left-leaning intellectuals have even called the SDF unconstitutional under the Constitution.

Overseas activities, including United Nations peacekeeping operations, disaster relief efforts and the humanitarian aid mission in Iraq, have officially held a low priority, defined as falling under the "miscellaneous provisions" of the SDF Law.

"Defense Agency officials and SDF officers who say they can't hold their head high with the agency status do not think about how the SDF has been formed" after the war, Maeda said.

But Toshiyuki Shikata, a professor at Teikyo University in Tokyo and the former commander of the Northern Army of the Ground Self-Defense Force, argues that a change in the status of the agency and overseas missions is long overdue.

"Japan's defense capability is one of the best in the world. I think it's probably among the best five in the world," said Shikata, who believes that the nation should give proper respect and status to the Defense Agency and SDF personnel engaging in national defense missions.

"If you try to make (Japan's) defense capability look smaller than the reality by calling it 'an agency' or 'nonmilitary force,' it only causes distrust by other countries because they would only regard it as deception," he said.

Japan, with its strong antimilitary sentiment after the war, has neglected the role of the military, he said, taking only political, economical and diplomatic matters into consideration in working out a grand design for the country.

"For example, in building an expressway, bridge or dam, their strategic significance (for national security) are never considered, although (Japanese people) think about their economic effects," Shikata said.

Transforming the Defense Agency into a ministry will allow defense officials to engage more in strategic planning, he said.

Upgrading the agency has been floated many times in the past, but it never came to anything because of the public's lingering antimilitary sentiment.

It took North Korea's recent missile and nuclear tests to create a sense of crisis, making it easier for politicians to push the bills through the Diet, Shikata said.

"(Politicians) did not want to spend much political energy in pushing for such bills," Shikata said.

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