Japan will not take part in the multinational force being assembled to restore peace in East Timor, but will contribute $2 million for humanitarian assistance "as a first step," a government spokesman said last week.

Japan, which is Indonesia's largest foreign aid donor and a major trading partner, will make further "substantial contributions" to help nations that are willing to send troops but are in need of funds to assemble and support their forces, officials said.

Japanese law permits soldiers to be sent abroad for limited participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations, but not for other multinational forces.

The Australian-led international force includes elements from several of Indonesia's other neighbors, among them Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, and their participation has prompted discussion in Tokyo of Japan's conspicuous absence.

"In a crisis in Southeast Asia, which has close ties to Japan, the fact that Asian and Western countries are coming to help and that Japan's presence cannot be seen is odd," said the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily newspaper, in an editorial last week.

Japan's postwar constitution renounces war, so when parliament passed a law in 1992 allowing soldiers to go on U.N. missions under certain conditions, the legislation stated that they could not be involved in the use of force. But interpretations of the constitution have gradually broadened, and some politicians are calling for revision of that provision.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said last week that he would take steps to lift a ban on Japanese soldiers participating in peacekeeping tasks that could result in armed skirmishes.

Taku Yamasaki, who is challenging Obuchi for leadership of the ruling party, said in a debate with the prime minister that Japan should be ready to send its forces to East Timor when a U.N. peacekeeping mission takes over from the multinational force.

"Japan should cooperate in that operation," he said. "It would not be enough just to give money."

A former ambassador to Indonesia, Taizo Watanabe, has been calling for Japan to send a sizable amount of personnel for humanitarian work. "It is vitally important for common Indonesian people on the street to see with their own eyes that it is not only Australians or Europeans, but fellow Asians, especially Japanese, who are sharing hopes" for East Timor, he said.

Some reports noted that Japan refused to join U.S. threats of an aid cutoff or other sanctions if Indonesia declined to accept international peacekeepers.

But Watanabe said the Japanese government worked hard to get Indonesia to accept a peacekeeping force and that "it is a matter of great regret that Japanese legal restrictions prevent Japan from actively participating in the multinational force operation."