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Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007
Defense Agency given ministry status
The Defense Agency was formally renamed the Defense Ministry on Tuesday, giving military officials a greater hand in the government's strategic policy-planning bodies.
During a formal military review at the ministry's headquarters in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said it is the time to "depart from the postwar regime" and give more esteem and power to the nation's long-frustrated military.
"I'm proud to be the prime minister who is launching the Defense Ministry as the organization in charge of national defense," Abe said.
The Defense Agency was most recently a subordinate body under the Cabinet Office.
However, the recent security threat posed by North Korea has given defense officials more say in national security, including the difficult negotiations on realigning the U.S. military presence in Japan.
As a result, defense officials have become the key players in talks with the U.S. Defense Department.
Abe pledged to establish the body as "a policy-planning ministry," and defense officials hope this will allow them to take over some of the responsibilities long monopolized by the Foreign Ministry.
"We have to strengthen our policy-(related) functions," said Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma, who was the agency director general.
According to a set of laws on the transition enacted in December, the defense minister will now be allowed to make budget requests or policy suggestions at Cabinet meetings and make overseas operations a primary mission of the Self-Defense Forces.
Until Tuesday, it was the prime minister who proposed defense-related issues.
Where the line will be drawn between the Foreign and Defense ministries has not yet been decided, but Kyuma said there won't be any major changes in their responsibilities for the time being.
He also said the Defense Ministry will be more active in proposing policies to "prepare an environment for the peace and safety of our country."
At the same time, Kyuma emphasized that Japan's basic security policies will remain unchanged despite the change in status.
This includes the constitutionally mandated restriction to self-defense and tight civilian control over military forces.
In recent weeks, the Defense Agency has spent 55 million yen preparing for the ceremony and other events related to the landmark change, including a new name board for the main gate, new name plates and identification cards for each official, and modifications to computer programs.
Many Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers, including Kyuma himself, had proposed upgrading the Defense Agency in the past, but their attempts were repeatedly dropped because antimilitary sentiment remains strong among voters.
However, last year's ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests by North Korea apparently changed sentiment in the party, and now more than 90 percent of lawmakers in both chambers of the Diet backed the government-sponsored bills during the Diet session that ended in December.
"My heart is too full for words, because the upgrading to the ministry had been much awaited (by agency officials)," Kyuma said from behind the desk at his office, which sported a new name plate designating him "Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma."