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TOKYO — Japanese lawmakers passed three historic bills Thursday that will give the government more freedom than it's had since the end of World War II to deploy military forces and respond to an imminent threat or an attack.

The passage of the "war contingency bills," the first such legislation in postwar Japan, followed nearly four decades of debate on the issue and came as the country faces growing threats from North Korea's nuclear and missile programs and from international terrorism.

Critics say the bills contradict Japan's pacifist Constitution and carry disturbing echoes of the country's militarist past, which other Asian nations haven't forgotten. In Japan's 1947 Constitution, which was written by American occupation forces, the Japanese "renounce war" and "the threat or use of force." Japan maintains 240,000-person Self-Defense Forces but relies heavily on the U.S. military for protection.

"Times have changed so that Japan can now exercise its inherent responsibility with regards to an emergency, taking into full account its sovereignty and independence as a nation," said Taku Yamazaki, the secretary general of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Takako Doi, who heads Japan's Social Democratic Party, opposed the bills, saying they were aimed at preparing the country for war.

"Today will become the day that the foundation of this nation of peace is completely overturned," she said.

The bills cleared Japan's House of Representatives on Thursday with more than 90 percent of the vote. They're expected to be enacted in June after the House of Councillors, the upper house of the Diet, Japan's parliament, approves them.

The legislation would allow Japan's Self-Defense Forces to mobilize in defensive positions if the government determines that an attack is imminent. At present, the Japanese can act only after they are attacked. The bills also call for Japan's National Security Council to be expanded, and they would allow the government to expropriate private land and property if necessary.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reached an agreement on the legislation with the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, after promising to include a provision that guarantees rights such as equality under the law and freedom of expression.

Questions remain over exactly how civil rights would be protected in the event of war.

Thursday's vote marked the latest change in the way Japan's leaders define an appropriate role for the country's defense forces. The role has evolved from providing a modest defense capability to participating in international disaster relief and peacekeeping missions.

In 1999, the Diet passed new guidelines for cooperating more actively with the United States on defense, something Washington had been seeking for years. In 2001, Japan sent warships to the Indian Ocean to support the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

The issue of collective self-defense remains thorny, since Japan's Constitution doesn't allow armed troops to be sent outside the country and permits only the minimum use of force for self-defense. Critics say Japan can play an important role in the world without expanding its military.

"We can be a strong country in terms of human rights, humanity, trust and hope," said Doi of the Social Democrats. "It does not have to be military strength."

Many Japanese changed their views after North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that flew over part of Japan in 1998.

In late 2001, a Japanese coast guard vessel sank a North Korean spy ship after a six-hour gun battle.

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