TOKYO, Dec. 9 -- Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's cabinet agreed on Thursday to extend the deployment of Japan's 600 non-combat troops in Iraq for up to one year, despite condemnation of the mission by more than half of the Japanese public and opposition political parties.
The mission, the largest overseas deployment of Japanese soldiers since World War II, is part of what many experts view as a reemergence of Japan's armed forces in world affairs.
A Japanese soldier patrols a market in Samawah, where the country's contingent has been stationed.
(Mohammed Ameen -- Reuters)
In a further step in that direction, Japan is set to unveil a new national defense strategy Friday that calls for closer military ties with the United States as well as better training and transport capabilities for future deployments of forces abroad, according to a draft copy obtained by The Washington Post. The document also calls for Japan to move toward building an antimissile shield in conjunction with the United States.
Highlighting a slow but steady shift away from more than half a century of pacifism, Japan will give its armed forces, known officially as the Self-Defense Forces, a more conventional command structure, putting its land, sea and air forces under a joint command.
North Korea and, for the first time, China are named as potential security concerns.
Japan has long focused its security strategy on defending the home islands. The new approach significantly broadens the officially recognized scope of national interests to include a vast area from the Middle East to East Asia.
Although Japan plans to cut defense spending slightly over the next five years, some analysts say expanding the geographic range of its security interests is likely to spark criticism from Asian nations, where many people retain harsh memories of wartime Japanese occupation.
The United States has essentially taken responsibility for Japan's security since World War II. Koizumi and President Bush have acknowledged a personal friendship that serves to tighten the already close bilateral relationship. The growing cooperation comes as key allies in Europe -- particularly France and Germany -- have become increasingly estranged from the United States.
Japan's mission in Iraq is limited to non-combat engineering and water purification projects near the southern city of Samawah. But Japan has allowed Bush to say that the U.S.-led reconstruction effort has the backing of the country with the world's second-largest economy.
Japanese officials contend that they have increasing cause for alarm regarding the country's security. Last month, a Chinese submarine illegally entered Japanese waters, sparking a rare naval alert and days of surveillance before the Chinese government admitted what it called an "accidental intrusion."
But North Korea is seen as the greatest threat. The country expelled international weapons inspectors two years ago and U.S. intelligence analysts believe it has built six to eight nuclear devices. The communist state has missiles capable of reaching almost all parts of Japan.
Many people here are calling for Japan to impose economic sanctions on North Korea. Outrage grew this week after DNA tests showed that remains Pyongyang had said were those of a Japanese citizen kidnapped by North Korean agents turned out to be those of someone else. The North Koreans had said the remains proved that Megumi Yokota, kidnapped in 1977, had died.
As result of the DNA finding, Koizumi decided to halt delivery of 125,000 tons of food aid. He did not impose formal sanctions, which would have been a significant step given North Korea's assertion that it would regard sanctions as an act of war.
Recent opinion surveys show that more than half of the Japanese public opposes extending the Japanese mission in Iraq, which was supposed to expire this month. Many people here say they feel the deteriorating security situation in Iraq has made the situation untenable for the troops, who under the terms of their pacifist constitution observe strictly defensive rules of engagement and cannot engage in combat.
The Japanese forces are being protected by Dutch soldiers, who are scheduled to leave in March. British forces are anticipated to pick up the security detail.
Thursday's extension of the mission includes a measure that would allow Japan to withdraw its troops early if the situation becomes too dangerous. But that is not good enough for many opponents of the extension, who say they want their country's forces out now.
"How far is Japan going to go to follow the United States?" asked Takeaki Matsumoto, a leading member of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. "We're very concerned."