TOKYO Jan 23 The Algeria hostage crisis has
given ammunition to Japanese conservatives keen to ease limits
on military actions abroad, but Japan's post-World War Two
pacifist legacy is forcing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to tread
Abe, already labelled a right-wing nationalist, seems wary
of upsetting volatile voters - whose top priority is reviving a
stagnant economy - by appearing to use the deaths of seven
Japanese to push his broader, hawkish security agenda.
Narushige Michishita, a professor at the National Graduate
Institute for Political Studies in Tokyo, said the crisis would
bolster the argument of Abe and those in the ruling Liberal
Democratic Party (LDP) who want to expand the role of the
Self-Defence Forces, as Japan's military is known.
"But they shouldn't overplay this game ... because it might
backfire," he said.
Japan has for decades been stretching the limits of its
1947, U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution - which if strictly
interpreted bans even the maintenance of a military. It has
dispatched troops for international peace keeping operations and
to Iraq on a non-combat reconstruction mission in 2004-2006.
But changes have been politically contentious, while signs
Japan is flexing its military muscle have the potential to upset
rival China, where memories of Tokyo's wartime aggression run
deep and which is now locked in a territorial row with Japan.
The seven Japanese were among the 38 mostly foreign hostages
killed during the four-day siege of a desert gas plant complex
in Algeria by Islamic militants and another three Japanese
nationals are missing.
Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera ordered a government plane
to bring home the seven surviving employees of engineering firm
JGC Corp and the bodies, the first time a military
plane has gone on such a distant mission.
But under the existing law governing the SDF, military
personnel can only be sent to evacuate citizens if the area is
deemed safe. Even then, land transport is banned and the use of
weapons to protect the civilians is restricted.
The LDP, which proposed easing those stringent conditions
two years ago, says the hostage crisis had underscored the need
"Under the current SDF law, if an upheaval occurs overseas
and our citizens make it at risk to their lives to airports or
ports, military personnel cannot go there unless their safety is
assured," the party's No.2 executive, former defence minister
Shigeru Ishiba, told reporters this week.
BROADER AGENDA, WARY TONE
On Tuesday, the LDP and its smaller coalition partner agreed
to speed up talks on the topic with an eye to submitting changes
to parliament in a session that begins on Monday.
Abe and his top government spokesman, however, have sounded
a warier tone out of what analysts said was consideration not
only for public opinion ahead of an upper house poll in July but
for its more dovish coalition partner, the New Komeito Party.
"For troops who must make life or death decisions in a tenth
of a second to be forced to act within the limits of the law or
risk violating, it is a harsh restriction," Abe said in a TV
interview late on Tuesday, referring to the law's restrictions
to use of weapons by troops on overseas rescue missions.
"But we have no idea of using this incident to try to pass
such a law (revising this)," Abe added. "There are various
problems including information gathering so after investigating
it will be necessary to consider how to resolve such problems."
Abe and like-minded conservatives, in fact, want to go
beyond the piece-meal approach of past governments in expanding
the military's role abroad to implement a broader agenda that
would break what they consider the shackles of a pacifist regime
imposed on Japan by the United States after World War Two.
Included in that agenda is a push to re-interpret the
constitution to allow Japan to exercise its right of collective
self-defence, or coming to the aid of an ally under attack, and
eventually, to revise the constitution's pacifist Article Nine
to make clear Japan's right to maintain a standing military.
Shorter term, Abe's government is embarking on the first
revision of U.S.-Japan defence cooperation guidelines in 15
years and a make-over of its basic defence policy to better cope
with a rising China. But precisely because of that well-known
agenda, Abe seems for now intent on going slow.
"Abe knows he has that image (as a right-wing hawk) and he
is wary of appearing to use this incident in such a way," said
Katsuhiko Nakamura, executive director at think tank Asian Forum
Japan. "He is going to be very careful about how he responds and
I think that is reflected in his choice of words."
Close Abe aide Isao Iijima, who advises the premier on
political strategy, said it was premature for Abe to push his
broader security agenda since the election win that propelled
the LDP back to power was mainly a vote against its rivals.
"Seventy-five percent of the people didn't like either Mr.
Abe or the LDP," Iijima told Reuters in an interview. "The Abe
cabinet has a responsibility to take into account the view of
that 75 percent," he said. "I think Mr. Abe understands that. So
constitutional revision is far off."
(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Nick