TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan elevated its defense agency to full-fledged ministry status on Tuesday, a sign of a bolder security stance that drew a swift expression of concern from China, which suffered from Japan’s past military aggression.
The largely symbolic move is the latest sign of Tokyo’s desire to emerge from the shadow of wartime defeat and play a bigger role in global security affairs.
A law making the agency a ministry was passed last month along with other legislation making overseas missions a key role of Japan’s military, whose activities have long been constrained by the nation’s pacifist constitution.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan’s first top leader born after World War Two, has made revising the U.S.-drafted constitution a key policy goal, although voters are divided.
The upgrade in status reflects a proactive stance that may raise the risk of more members of the armed forces facing dangerous operations overseas, such as the 2004-2006 deployment of non-combat troops to Iraq.
After a ceremony elevating defense agency chief Fumio Kyuma to minister, Abe and Kyuma were saluted by 80 uniformed military members at the ministry’s hilltop complex in central Tokyo.
“I am proud to be prime minister at the time we were able to establish the Defense Ministry as an organization that plays the role of national defense that is inalienable from state sovereignty,” Abe said later in a speech at the ministry.
“This is a big first step toward building a new nation after emerging from the postwar regime,” he added.
Kyuma noted that North Korean missile launches and a nuclear test last year meant the security situation in areas near Japan remained tough.
“Our nation also needs to respond more positively to international activities for peace and stability,” Kyuma said.
The new Defense Ministry will now be able to directly request budgets from the finance ministry and to propose legislation.
The Defense Agency, founded in 1954, kept a low profile for decades because of Japan’s constitution and public aversion to anything that might revive memories of wartime militarism.
Asian nations that suffered from Japanese military aggression before and during the war also look askance at anything that suggests a drift away from its postwar pacifism.
China’s official Xinhua news agency promptly expressed concern.
“On the surface it is only a slight change in words. The difference in essence is fundamental,” it said.
“The moves provide sufficient reason for people to worry if Japan is able to stick to the pacifist path and to truly reflect on history.”
North Korea’s test of an atomic device in October prompted some Japanese politicians to suggest that Tokyo should at least discuss acquiring its own nuclear weapons.
Kyuma, however, said in an interview with Reuters last month that Japan should retain its pacifist constitution and non-nuclear status.
Additional reporting by Guo Shipeng in Beijing
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