A YEAR after first debating whether to send troops to the Gulf effort, Japan has once again hesitated to decide if it should ever dispatch its combat forces overseas.Parliament adjourned last week without passing a bill to allow Japanese soldiers to serve in United Nations (UN) peace-keeping forces. The measure to permit Japanese troops to serve outside the country was strongly promoted by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has been trying to expand the military role of a nation that thinks of itself as pacifist. But support for the bill faltered when LDP leaders made an awkward interpretation of Japan's "peace" Constitution, which bans force in solving global conflicts. The LDP claimed the use of guns by Japanese soldiers in a UN force would not be the same as the use of force. An outcry by the political opposition and the news media against this attempt at a legal distinction delayed a final vote. Passage is not expected until at least late November, when parliament is expected to reconvene. The Asahi newspaper referred to the LDP's explanation as "opportunistic" and an attempt to "call a spade a diamond." The Japan Times said, "This kind of spurious argument has been effective to a certain extent toward the domestic audience, but will only be accepted as illogical petti-fogging by other nations." The delay in passing the bill has caused some anxiety among the LDP and government officials for three reasons. One is that they are eager for Japanese troops to join a UN peace-keeping force expected to enter Cambodia in early November, when a settlement of that conflict is likely to take effect. Such a step would mark a new era for Japan in Asia. "Japan intends to make personnel and financial contributions ... to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Cambodia which has been ravaged by years of war," said a Foreign Ministry statement. Another reason is that Japanese leaders want to dampen criticism in the United States over the nation's refusal to send rear-line personnel to the multinational forces during the Gulf war. The criticism has worsened US-Japan economic friction. "Whatever impression people had of Japan before, it should not be taken for granted," says Foreign Ministry spokesman Taizo Watanabe. "We are changing in a better direction." And a third reason for the bill is to prepare the Japanese for another type of military dispatch, slated for next fall. The government plans to send naval ships and helicopters to guard a freighter carrying a shipment of plutonium back from Europe, where it has been recycled from spent nuclear fuel. The military escort is needed to prevent possible terrorist hijacking of the freighter, which must travel for five or six weeks over some 18,000 miles of ocean. Officials have tried to lay the groundwork, both at home and abroad, for acceptance of a Japanese move to send combat soldiers overseas for the first time since the end of World War II. Outgoing Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu apologized for Japan's role in World War II on a visit to Southeast Asia last May. This week, Japan's emperor ended a historic tour of the region. Among Asian nations, only South Korea has voiced a mild warning against the proposed law. The LDP has also carefully courted a few key opposition parties to overcome their objections to the bill as well as campaigning for public support. "We feel that more than half of the populace already is beginning to understand the purpose of this bill," says Mr. Watanabe. Strong public resistance helped to kill a similar bill last November that would have allowed troops to join the Gulf effort. Last spring, at the height of US criticism over Japan's failure to send personnel to the Gulf, the LDP took the unusually bold legal step and altered a government ordinance to allow a fleet of six mine-sweepers to help clean up waters in the Gulf. The ships are scheduled to return at the end of this month, having cleared 36 mines from shipping lanes. "There has been a deepening of the common understanding of the people that Japan should play an active role for world peace not only in money and materials but also in personnel," said government spokesman Misoji Sakamoto last month. A opinion survey by the government in June revealed that 45.5 percent of Japanese would support the military joining a UN peace-keeping force - but without the "use of force." Those opposed were 37.9 percent. The two small opposition parties courted by the LDP, the Komeito (clean) Party and the Democratic Socialist Party, have tried to limit the bill's scope so that it does not violate a constitutional ban against "collective self-defense." The result is a measure with awkward conditions that would, as one military officer stated, send out "soldiers who do not fight." The bills restricts Japan to only joining a UN force when a cease-fire is agreed upon among warring parties in the area of conflict, and only when those parties accept Japan's participation. Troops could not be sent to an area to stop fighting, such as happened in 1960 when UN forces were sent to the Congo. If fighting does erupt in a UN-controlled area, Japanese troops would be able to defend themselves only, using small firearms and the machine guns on armed personnel carriers. They could not defend other nationalities in the UN force. And the new bill would demand that Japanese armed forces withdraw immediately in a battle. Such restrictions would supersede any orders by a UN military commander. Another problem facing the bill is a demand by the opposition Social Democratic Party that parliament, and not just the government, approve each deployment of troops to the UN. But the LDP opposes such a restriction on the grounds that the government needs "flexibility" should the UN make an immediate request for troops.