TOKYO, JAN. 24 -- Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu prompted a political firestorm today when he said he will send five Japanese Self-Defense Force planes as well as chartered civilian aircraft to the Middle East to help resettle refugees fleeing the war.
Opposition figures said dispatch of military planes to an overseas war zone violates Japan's constitution. Known here as the "Peace Constitution," it forbids use of military force by Japan other than in self-defense. It was written by Americans and imposed by decree during the post-World War II U.S. occupation. But it is now cherished by many Japanese as the pillar of their democracy.
The initial outcry over the plan to send military planes -- the first time a Japanese military force would be dispatched overseas since World War II -- seemed much more heated than political commentary on Kaifu's decision to donate an additional $9 billion beyond the earlier committed $4 billion to the allied military force in the Persian Gulf.
The airplane proposal appeared to be distracting political attention from the big new financial contribution -- which may have been its purpose in the first place.
The Japanese government has been seeking ways to take a more active role on refugees, on the theory that such assistance is a useful, and visible, way for a country committed to nonviolence to assist in the war effort. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has asked Japan to help move Asians who were working in the war zone back to their home countries.
On Friday, the government said, aircraft chartered from Japan Air Lines and All Nippon Airlines will fly to Cairo for 960 Vietnamese fleeing the war. The refugees are to be flown first to Tokyo, and then home.
In later refugee missions, if commercial planes are not available, Kaifu said, he will send planes and crews from the Self-Defense Force. He proposed using five C-130 cargo planes with crew and support personnel totaling about 200.
Last fall, Kaifu failed to win passage of a bill authorizing dispatch of some Japanese defense force personnel to noncombat positions in the gulf. Popular opposition was so angry that Kaifu yanked the proposal from the legislative calendar rather than suffer a humiliating defeat. He could not even win complete support of his own Liberal Democratic Party.
This time, Kaifu said, he will dispatch military planes on his own authority, without authorizing legislation. Leaders of the Socialist Party, the second biggest party, denounced that plan as a means to thwart the will of the majority as expressed during the debate last fall.