Japan is preparing to send military aircraft to the Mideast, an act which would mark the first deployment since World War II of Japanese forces to an area of international conflict. Although the mission is minor, Japan's decision yesterday to send five C-130 transport planes is one spinoff of the Gulf crisis with potential long-term implications. But Japanese officials play down the pending deployment as a one-time event designed to meet a United States request for a Japanese ``physical presence'' in the anti-Iraq effort.
Keeping limits on Japan's military, however, is such an emotional issue that the government plans to make a small change in an old decree to allow a quick dispatch of aircraft and thus avoid public debate. Japan's Constitution bars the threat or use of force to settle international disputes.
``The issue should be brought to parliament first to obtain a consensus,'' says Michiko Matsuura, president of the League of Women Voters of Japan. ``The government is violating parliamentary democracy.''
Younger politicians in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are using US pressure to alter a post-World War II regimen against the overseas deployment of Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF), says political commentator Minoru Morita.
``A right-wing trend will grow in Japan's political circles,'' he says. The SDF, however, will not see much change because it has always thought of itself as ``the Tokyo branch of the Pentagon,'' he adds.
The military aircraft are being prepared to go if two civilian airlines are judged to be vulnerable in making the evacuations. That decision is expected in a few days. The government is responding to a request from a private organization, the International Organization for Migration, to help evacuate refugees fleeing Iraq, with the first batch expected to be some 1,000 Vietnamese.
In addition to sending aircraft, the government also decided yesterday to increase its contribution to the US-led coalition forces in the Gulf by $9 billion, although officials say they may put conditions on the use of the money. This amount approaches what Japanese officials say would be about 20 percent of the war's estimated cost. Japan has given $2 billion in military aid thus far.
``The shouldering of part of the cost of the multinational forces will come with pain, but that is a pain Japan has to share with the world,'' Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu told the ruling LDP yesterday.
The decision to raise the contribution and to dispatch transport planes came after fears rose among Japanese business leaders and diplomats that US criticism of Japan's reluctant role in the Gulf effort would deeply damage bilateral ties. ``No nation should be so self-centered as to ignore the needs of another,'' Mr. Kaifu said Thursday.
The Iraqi ambassador to Japan, Rashid al-Rifai, warned Japan in a news conference that its military aircraft would be considered targets. The deployment, he said, ``is an alibi to get the Japanese Army into the area.''