Japan PM urges opposition to back Afghan mission

Tokyo, January 9, 2008 (AFP): Japan's embattled Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda Wednesday urged the opposition to support resuming a naval mission backing the US-led "war on terror" ahead of a crucial parliamentary vote.

But the opposition refused to budge in the first formal parliamentary debate with Fukuda since he took power in September, saying the deployment violated Japan's pacifist constitution.

Japan in November ended the mission in the Indian Ocean providing refuelling support to coalition forces in Afghanistan after the opposition, which won one house of parliament last year, refused to extend legislation.

Parliament is widely expected to restart the mission soon as Fukuda's coalition still enjoys an overwhelming majority in the more powerful lower house of parliament.

Japanese media reported Wednesday that the opposition-led upper house planned to reject the bill to restart the mission in a vote on Friday, with the lower house then expected to move immediately to pass it.

Fukuda, who is struggling in polls after a series of scandals, said the naval mission, Japan's main contribution to the "war on terror" launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks, benefited the international community.

"As a matter of principle, it is an international peacebuilding activity that is not defined as an exertion of military force," Fukuda said in a televised debate with opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa.

His coalition has asserted that the world's second-largest economy needs to play a role in global security while staying true to the post-World War II constitution, under which Japan forever renounced the right to wage war.

"It is not a constitutional matter. We are not using force in the Indian Ocean," Fukuda said.

"We are not doing this for any particular nation," he added. "This is a very meaningful activity. There are areas for discussion, so I sincerely ask for your cooperation."

But Ozawa said the government has failed to clarify the constitutional rationale for the deployment of the navy, which the pacifist nation calls the Maritime Self-Defence Forces.

"To send the Self-Defence Forces, who are really military soldiers, to overseas missions, we must have basic and clear rules," Ozawa said.

"Considering our country's past, the judgement must not be left up to the powers that be of the time. That could mislead our nation," he said, alluding to Japan's militarist history.

"To say it's OK because we are not directly involved in 'bang bang' situations, to say it's OK because the United States asked us so, to say it's OK because it's contributing to the international community... if we start saying these things, anything can be done," Ozawa said.

But Ozawa's Democratic Party of Japan has little power to stop the deployment from resuming, barring persuading members of the ruling coalition.

The government-controlled lower house passed the bill on November 13 to restart the mission. Even if the opposition-led upper house refused to vote, it would go back to the lower house after 60 days, which is Friday.

The lower house can override the upper house as the ruling coalition enjoys a two-thirds majority in the more powerful chamber.

As Fukuda fights to resume the mission, a survey Sunday showed that only 33 percent of voters supported his Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan for all but 10 months since its founding in 1955.

The government has been hit hard by a series of controversies including a bribery scandal at the defence ministry and a row over compensation to victims of hepatitis C-contaminated blood.

A committee of lawmakers decided Wednesday to file a perjury charge against Takemasa Moriya, the former vice-defence minister embroiled in a gifts-for-contracts scandal, according to Kyodo news agency.

The committee is expected to formally vote for the action unanimously on Friday, lawmakers said, according to the report.