Japan's Abe treads warily around military shift after Algeria deaths

Wed Jan 23, 2013 4:19am EST
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By Linda Sieg

TOKYO (Reuters) - The Algeria hostage crisis has given ammunition to Japanese conservatives keen to ease limits on military actions abroad, but Japan's post-World War Two pacifist legacy is forcing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to tread carefully.

Abe, already labeled a right-wing nationalist, seems wary of upsetting volatile voters - whose top priority is reviving a stagnant economy - by appearing to use the deaths of seven Japanese to push his broader, hawkish security agenda.

Narushige Michishita, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Political Studies in Tokyo, said the crisis would bolster the argument of Abe and those in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who want to expand the role of the Self-Defence Forces, as Japan's military is known.

"But they shouldn't overplay this game ... because it might backfire," he said.

Japan has for decades been stretching the limits of its 1947, U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution - which if strictly interpreted bans even the maintenance of a military. It has dispatched troops for international peace keeping operations and to Iraq on a non-combat reconstruction mission in 2004-2006.

But changes have been politically contentious, while signs Japan is flexing its military muscle have the potential to upset rival China, where memories of Tokyo's wartime aggression run deep and which is now locked in a territorial row with Japan.

The seven Japanese were among the 38 mostly foreign hostages killed during the four-day siege of a desert gas plant complex in Algeria by Islamic militants and another three Japanese nationals are missing.

Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera ordered a government plane to bring home the seven surviving employees of engineering firm JGC Corp and the bodies, the first time a military plane has gone on such a distant mission.   Continued...

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives at his official residence after he cancelled part of his trip in Southeast Asia, his first overseas trip since taking office, due to the hostage crisis in Algeria, in Tokyo January 19, 2013. REUTERS/Toru Hanai