Japan Upgrades Its Defense Agency

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 16, 2006

TOKYO, Dec. 15 -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government pushed through landmark laws Friday requiring Japanese schools to encourage patriotism in the classroom and elevating the Defense Agency to the status of a full ministry for the first time since World War II.

Both measures are considered cornerstones of Abe's agenda to bolster Japan's military status and rebuild national pride in a country that has long associated patriotism with its imperialist past. The legislation cleared the upper house of parliament on Friday after winning approval in the lower house last month and will take effect early next year.

Abe, Japan's first prime minister born after World War II, had made education reform a key issue during his campaign to succeed Junichiro Koizumi in September. His bid to restore patriotism in schools has drawn harsh criticism from Japanese pacifists, who argue that such a law echoes the state-sponsored indoctrination of children practiced by Japan's past military leaders.

But Abe and other proponents counter that a renewed embrace of patriotism is an essential step forward for Japan as it gradually emerges from a decades-long sense of guilt over World War II. In recent years, for instance, municipalities have begun enforcing laws requiring the national anthem to be sung and the Japanese flag flown at certain school ceremonies, despite objections from teachers' unions, which remain one of the last bastions of pacifism in Japan.

The new education law is likely to dramatically increase the number of schools using revisionist textbooks that have been heralded by conservatives here but decried by Japan's wartime victims -- particularly China and South Korea -- as whitewashing its past aggression. Such books omit references, for instance, to "comfort women," a euphemism for the thousands of Asian women forced into sexual bondage by the Japanese military during the 1930s and '40s.

"The revision bears the historic significance of clearly showing the fundamental idea of education for a new era," Abe said in a statement lauding the law's passage.

Also approved were a key set of bills upgrading Japan's Defense Agency -- created in 1954 after the American occupation of Japan ended -- to the status of a full ministry. The move gives defense officials greater clout in national policymaking and budget decisions, something considered taboo here in the decades after the war.

The primary mission of Japan's Self-Defense Forces, whose role had long been strictly defined as defense of the home islands, will now be expanded to include overseas peacekeeping missions. Japan deployed noncombat troops in Iraq from 2004 until earlier this year, but only after Koizumi won special authority from parliament.

The agency's elevation to a ministry will also facilitate passage of more specific laws giving Japan greater flexibility to dispatch its forces to international hot spots. More important, it could eventually allow Japan to offer a larger measure of logistical support in a regional conflict. Such a move could change the balance of power in East Asia, empowering Tokyo, for instance, to assist the United States in defending Taiwan in the event of Chinese aggression. But officials here say it may take years before bills that would explicitly permit such actions are drafted and submitted to parliament.

Nevertheless, the upgrading of the Defense Agency underscores the growing prominence of the military establishment in Japan, a nation that renounced the right to use force to settle international disputes in the postwar pacifist constitution drafted for it by the United States. Japan has largely relied for deterrence on its security alliance with the United States, which keeps about 50,000 troops here.

But with concerns growing about regional security, particularly as a result of North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons, Japan has begun to shed its pacifist shell. Abe has called for the drafting of a new constitution that would allow Japan to officially possess a flexible military again.

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